Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wasp Woman (Santa Cruz/Filmgroup, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I were able to screen a movie, The Wasp Woman, which had recently been shown on Turner Classic Movies and which we’d downloaded from It was a Roger Corman cheapie ($50,000 production budget) from 1959, though not for American International this time but for an indie called “Santa Cruz Productions” along with a distributor called “Filmgroup Features.” Though the shooting schedule was probably as short as the budget and the cast is not particularly well known — Susan Cabot, in her last film (though she lived another 27 years before being killed by her little-person son, who claimed she’d abused him physically and mentally for years, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and given a three-year suspended sentence and probation), played the title role, a cosmetics-company CEO named Janice Starland who’s worried about falling sales at her firm — this is actually a surprisingly impressive film, done with a level of understatement and subtlety one doesn’t usually expect from Corman.

After a credits sequence shown against the backdrop of an active hive (a beehive, not a wasp’s nest, according to an “goofs” poster), there’s a prologue set at a California apiary where an eccentric scientist named Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark in a role that, quite frankly, cried out for Boris Karloff) has been raising wasps as a sideline, hoping that just as queen bees’ royal jelly is considered everything from a health food to an aphrodisiac, so might wasp royal jelly have unexpected powers of rejuvenation. Alas, his bosses decide he’s a useless drain on company resources, so they fire him — only he ends up on the other side of the country, working for Janice Starland’s cosmetics company, which is in the middle of a prolonged sales slump that threatens to put it out of business altogether. (The page on this film mistakenly gives Susan Cabot’s character’s last name as “Starlin,” but “Starland” is the spelling we see on her building and wherever the name is shown in print during the film.) Her assistant, Bill Lane (Fred Eisley, who later changed his first name to Anthony), believes that the slump is due to Janice’s decision to stop using herself as the one and only model in Starland’s ads — a decision she came to because she felt she now looked too old to be an effective sales image for cosmetics.

Janice decides he’s right, and seizes on Dr. Zinthrop’s wasp researches to figure out a way to keep looking young for the rest of her life; indeed, she agrees to bankroll him on condition that she be his first human test subject. (He’s already tested it on animals, where he’s reduced full-grown cats to kittenhood, and one wonders why Janice doesn’t point out to him that this would never do for her: she doesn’t want to become a child again!) Zinthrop makes up three vials of the wasp-rejuvenation serum and intends to dole them out to her carefully and note her reactions, but instead she injects herself with one of the vials all at once and shortly thereafter Zinthrop is injured in an accident, fleeing from some carefully unspecified danger, and he survives but is brain-damaged and in a coma, so it’s unknown if he’ll remember his own formula even if he recovers. Eventually, of course, Janice Starland turns into the titular were-wasp — represented by cladding her in a skin-tight, velvet-covered body suit with a furry black helmet designed to give her head the requisite “waspicity” — uses up all the available serum and knocks off some of her staff before the film’s heroes, Bill and Janice’s long-suffering secretary (and Bill’s girlfriend) Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris, who obviously had the opposite feeling about her first name from Ms. Streisand; instead of getting rid of letters she felt extraneous, she added some!), figure out what’s going on, destroy the wasp woman and watch Zinthrop literally go up in a puff of smoke, taking the secret of his wasp-jelly formula with him to the grave (not that there’ll be that much left to bury when the time comes).

Charles mentioned to me before the film started that there’d been at least one previous horror film, Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, set against the backdrop of a cosmetics company (though that one’s plot contained nothing either supernatural or science-fictional and was just a story of a Satanic cult taking over a company and using it as a front), and it turned out that for much of The Wasp Woman’s running time it’s surprisingly Lewtonesque. Aside from a much better than average (for Roger Corman) cast — the acting is understated throughout, with none of the eye-rolling hammery one usually expects from a horror movie — the film gets most of its thrills (and chills) from the outrageousness of its situations and the veiled but unmistakable social comments on the beauty industry and, by extension, capitalism in general, and Corman proves as adept, if not more so, as a suspense director as he ever was in out-and-out horror.

Indeed, so much of The Wasp Woman gains power and force from its understatement that it’s disappointing that, 53 minutes into its 72-minute running time, Corman finally brings out that ridiculous-looking were-wasp, which couldn’t help but remind me of the deliberately risible-looking cat-person suits producer Kirk Douglas is offered, and rejects, in The Bad and the Beautiful (a scene for which Lewton was obviously the inspiration). It’s a real pity that in a film done so subtly and so adept at creating menace without using obvious fright-film gimmickry until the last 20 minutes, Corman didn’t go for the whole Lewton recipe and merely suggest the presence of the wasp-woman with shadows and sound effects — but even so, The Wasp Woman stands out as one of the rare gems among the early Corman’s miles of dreck (along with A Bucket of Blood, Sorority Girl and the original Little Shop of Horrors), a film that manages to be scarier just by being disquieting than a lot of other movies that fling blood, gore and grotesquerie straight out at the audience.