Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wasp Woman (USA, 1959)

One thing you gotta say, Roger Corman always knew a good title when he saw one. So if a title as harmless as The Fly (1958 / trailer) brought in the crowds, surely something so much more monstrous like The Wasp Woman should do so, too. We're too young to know how The Wasp Woman did at the theatres when it first came out — though we do know it was at one point on a double bill with The Fly — but the title has proven itself unforgettable. Likewise, long before the film was honored with countless cheap public domain releases it was a regular on the Creature Feature shows of many a local broadcaster: we ourselves are sure we caught it as a child in both Massachusetts and Virginia, and like everything we saw back then, we loved it. Recently, we caught it again as an adult — regretfully, we must say that we were not quite as amused.
As is occasionally pointed out, the basic plot of The Wasp Woman can be seen on one level as a critique of the pressure society places upon women to remain eternally young. But on the other hand, it can also just be seen as a horror film of the science-goes-wrong kind that — rare in films before the 1980s — has a woman in the main role. Still, the horror of the events that occur do so only due to the pressure she feels as a woman and businessperson to regain her youthful appearance. Thus, the smidgeon of social critique remains present no matter how one views the film. However one chooses to interpret the film, we would still assume that it is doubtful that when Corman made the movie, he himself had any intention of anything other than making some cheap drive-in fodder. But for a film as obviously cheap as this one, Corman takes a much too dry and serious approach, if not much too lackadaisical one as well.
Though Susan Cabot (seen in a cheesecake photo left), in her last film, gives a lot and does well — far more so than most of her co-stars, in any event, with the possible exception of the sassy, hard-bitten secretary Maureen Reardon (Lynn Cartwright, seen below left, looking like a poor man's Jane Russell), who is less memorable as a character than for the oddly intriguing actress playing the relatively unimportant role — Roger Corman was obviously feeling lazy the couple of weeks he spent making this film, for his direction is unusually lethargic. Like the film as a whole, if you get down to it. Which isn't to say the film is a complete bore (it isn't, as it has both the patina of over 50 years and a lot of cheese factor to help make it passable) but the film, like this review, is a bit slow and drawn out. And then, once Cabot's character starts going all waspy, the body count remains low and the end quick.
But despite the quick end, more than the first half of The Wasp Woman is a turgid thing, and that even without the totally unnecessary opening scenes added later by Jack Hill (the director of many a later trash classic, including Coffy [1973]) when the film was sold to television: five interminable and unnecessary minutes of beekeepers during which Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark, a forgotten character actor once seen in the background of films such as House of Frankenstein [1944] or Background to Danger [1943]) is introduced. But in regards to laughs, the opening sequence is one that beekeepers obviously find funny: the night when we watched The Wasp Woman, we happened to have two beekeepers in the crowd (urban bee keeping is rather popular in Berlin at the moment) and they laughed through most it, even if no one else did.
Based on a story by Kinta Zertuche, the screenplay to The Wasp Woman was written by Leo Gordon, the husband of the above-mentioned intriguing actress Lynn Cartwright, who also wrote the screenplay to the equally cheap Corman production of the same year, Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), and two years later had a meaty part in one of Corman's best projects, his rare message movie entitled The Intruder (1961). This film here is less noble, however, and tells of one Janice Starlin — played by the tragic Susan Cabot, whose dwarf son Timothy Scott Roman killed her with a weight-lifting bar while she slept on 10 December 1986 (he got a three-year suspended sentence) — the founder and CEO of Starlin Cosmetics, the sales of which are drastically dropping since she stopped being the face in the adverts. The problem is, now that Starlin is at the haggard side of her 40s, her face is no longer one that can sell youth and beauty. Her managing board is of little help, fit only to tell her that the blame in the drop of sales is her fault 'cause she's getting old. (For a CEO, she is shown a remarkably low amount of respect by her employees — but then, she also seems to have a remarkably unmotivated staff.) Then Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) shows up and tells her that he has found a way to reverse aging through an enzyme found in wasp royal jelly; to prove his point, he turns an old guinea pig into a young rat, which for some odd reason Starlin sees as truly promising so she gives him a lab and budget to experiment further. And following a few more promising results, she demands that the next test of the product be on herself. Dr. Zinthrop, remarkable ethical for someone usually referred to as the film's mad scientist, is not hot to do so, but employer's orders are employer's orders. Needless to say, as to be expected from a 1950 science-gone-wrong horror film, the science goes wrong in a big way...
Of all the characters in the movie, Starlin and Zinthrop are the most human. True, Starlin is stiff and dislikable as her older self, but one does feel that she has been made so by the world that she moves in: a cut-throat business world in which even her own employees patronizingly treat her like a second-rate cog. As her younger self, she is convincingly lively and happy again, as if decades of weight have been taken from her shoulders — and, oddly enough, a the epitome of youth, she is both treated better and shown more respect by her staff than before. As for Dr. Zinthrop, none of his demands are strange or excessive; he is driven by science and not only sees in Starlin a trustworthy employer but is less than pleased to jump ahead to human testing so quickly. At most, he may cave in too quickly to Starlin's demands for being a human guinea pig, but one must remember that back in the days that The Wasp Woman was made, clinical testing was a bit more lais a fair and far less regulated and thorough than now (the Thalidomide scandal, for example, only broke two years later in 1961 — after the drug had already been on the open international market for five years). And once Zinthrop discovers the side effects — thanks to be what looks to be a stuffed rabid cat — he is so perturbed and out of himself that he promptly walks in front of a car, the perfect plot device to get him out of the story and give Starlin the means and reason to do some desperate, late-night testing...
Aside from Starlin and Zinthrop, however, The Wasp Woman is populated with objectionable characters of questionable motivations. The two main male characters, self-important ad man Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley of Dracula vs. Frankenstein [1971], credited as Fred Eisley) and Starlin's annoyingly dislikable head of research Arthur Cooper (William Roerick of God Told Me To [1976 / trailer]), hide their seditious actions behind the claim that Starlin has obviously fallen victim to a conman (Dr. Zinthrop), but their claims sound hollow. Indeed, it is much easier to see Arthur's interventions as being driven by his fear of possibly losing his job as head of research to Zinthrop — a view that is strengthened by his actions just before he meets his just fate: he is busy stealing the notes and serum of Dr. Zinthrop. What drives Bill Lane is open to conjecture — perhaps he is annoyed by Starlin's independence — but Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris of The Dunwich Horror [1970 / trailer]), Starlin's secretary, literally betrays her boss by stealing from and spying on her just to make Bill happy and keep his attention. By the time it is her turn to be in danger, one can't help but hope that she meets her just end, but just as there is no true justice in real life there is no justice in The Wasp Woman...
The Wasp Woman suffers dreadfully from its obvious low budget and underdeveloped script. The creature itself is good for a laugh, but little else in the film is, and the lethargic pacing is hardly mitigated by Corman's dull direction and the generally dreary and galling characters. The years have been kind to the movie, in any event, by intensifying its cheese factor, but there are many other cheesy films out there that are quicker and far more entertaining. (In fact, at least one of the two later remakes of the film is a definite improvement: Brian Thomas Jones's trashy début film, for example, the splatterfest Rejuvenatrix [1988 / final scene] is definitely a quicker, bloodier, cheesier, sleazier and much more fun ride.)
The Wasp Woman — famous title, barely passable film: best enjoyed when there are no other options left lying on the DVD shelf.
Full film: 

1 comment:

Dusty McGowan said...

Well, unfortunately, I didn't see this as a kid...far from it. I was in grad school, and it was on one of those cheap public domain sets. From memory, you're absolutely right. This is a boring movie...with a cheap laugh here and there.

But what I really remember (for some reason) is the music. It was almost like a circus march...truly bizarre.

Nice review.

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