Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Wasp Woman

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Wasp Woman (The Filmgroup, 1959) – Directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill (uncredited). Writers: Leo Gordon (s/p), Kinta Zertuche (story). Stars: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Michael Mark, Frank Gerstle, Bruno VeSota, Roy Gordon, Carolyn Hughes, Lynn Cartwright, Frank Wolff, Lani Mars, & Philip Barry. B&W, 73 minutes.

The Wasp Woman is an entertaining piece of nonsense from director Roger Corman and writer Leo Gordon, though later Corman tried to claim it was really a social satire on the quest for beauty. As with all Corman’s claims to the intellectual high ground, it should be taken with a grain of salt, the result of his lionization by later critics, particularly the French. In reality, the film is an attempt to cash in on the success of The Fly, released the previous year. As for the contention of some critics that it was an early feminist effort, the truth was that with a shooting schedule of two weeks and a budget of $50,000 any feminist theme was unintended and more likely an accident of the abbreviated shoot. Any power the film has is due to the strong performance of Susan Cabot as the lead.

Janice Starlin (Cabot), owner and chief of cosmetics company Starlin Enterprises, has problems. as it comes to her attention that sales are dropping. Bill Lane (Eisley), company virtuoso and chief brown-noser, tells Janice the decline in sales is due to Starlin’s decision to step aside as public face of the firm. For 18 years she has been the fact seen on every advertisement, and when she made the decision to step aside and let a bevy of young spokesmodels take her place, the public began to lose faith in the company. Starlin, naturally flattered, agrees with Hall’s analysis, but she doesn’t see a solution in sight.

Enter Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Mark), the mandatory crackpot mad scientist, who has been recently discharged from his former position at a honey company for his personal experiments with wasps and the nerve to bill the company for them. In a letter the doc tells Janice that he has discovered that enzymes from queen wasp royal jelly can reverse aging. (Never mind that only bees produce royal jelly, this is Corman we’re talking about.) Janice naturally is interested.

She asks company chemist Arthur Cooper (Roerick) for his opinion. He tells her it ain’t gonna work, but does Janice listen? Not on your life. She has Zinthrop waiting outside her office. He has a covered cage with him, and taking her to there lab, shows her the contents  two aged guinea pigs. But with a simple  injection of his joy juice, they not only become younger, but transform into white lab rats! Ah, the joys of low-budget filmmaking. Janice is hooked and hires Zinthrop on the spot, especially after he tells her that all he wants is a small royalty and credit for the discovery. She will give him complete freedom and secrecy to carry out his experiments, provided she can serve as his human subject. Zinthrop protests but Janice is firm, so why not? A test subject is a test subject.

But in such a large company nothing remains secret for long. Hall, for one, confides to his girlfriend and Janice’s assistant, Mary Dennison (Morris) that Zinthrop may be a charlatan. As Cooper is also of the same opinion, Bill asks Mary secretly to keep an eye on Zinthrop and Janice and report what they’re up to in the lab.

After several weeks accumulating the necessary amount of royal jelly, Zinthrop administers the first injection to Janice, advising her that it may take time for the results to show. He also tells her that after the test results are positively confirmed, Janice and Cooper should develop the product as a facial cream that will result in enormous profits for the company.

But Janice, having taken the injections for three weeks, is dismayed when they show no results, so she begins sneaking into the lab at night and dosing herself with a much higher amount than Zinthrop recommended. The next day Janice arrives at work looking as young as she did when she started the company, which prompts amazement from her staff and management. Janice and the board enthusiastically devise a new advertising campaign to “grow younger with Janice Starlin” using the new product. (Wait a minute, they want to release a product that has hardly been tested with unknown long-term side effects. Where is the FDA in all this?)

Meanwhile, back at the lab . . . Zinthrop finds to his horror that a cat that he has injected with the serum has transmuted into a cross between a cat and wasp. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, the wasp-cat puppet attacks Zinthrop and he is forced to kill it. Badly shaken over being attacked by a puppet, Zinthrop absent-mindedly walks into the street, where he is conveniently hit by a car and taken to the hospital. 

Janice becomes aware that Zinthrop has gone AWOL when she seeks him out to tell him about  the constant headaches she’s been having as of late. Concerned, she hires a private detective (Gerstle) to find him, giving him an 8x10 glossy, which begs the question of how a man who has been hired to work in secret has the time to pose for such a photo. That afternoon the detective reports that he has found the wayward scientist at a local hospital suffering from serious head injuries. (And she thought she had headaches.) Janice arranges for expert medical care while secretly continuing to dose herself with Zinthrop’s wasp serum.

Frustrated by the continued secrecy of Zinthrop's work, Cooper breaks into the laboratory and discovers the chemist's notes. He reads them, and believing he has found something fishy, returns to the lab. There he comes upon Janice, who has mutated into a sort of ‘werewasp.’ She attacks and kills Cooper, striking at his neck like a vampire. A couple of days later, Zinthrop comes out of his coma and Janice, now back in human form, has him transferred with a nurse to the Starlin building. As Janice and the nurse see him to his bed Zinthrop tells her that he has something important to tell her, but can’t remember what it is. She tells him to rest and tell her later when he heals up.

The next evening, Janice goes to the lab, only to discover that she’s fresh out of wasp serum. Later that night a watchman mysteriously disappears near the laboratory. The following day Bill, concerned over Cooper’s continuing absence, tells Mary the answers to his increasing questions are likely to be found in the lab, and Mary accompanies him. 

Janice, still suffering from severe headaches, goes to visit the semiconscious Zinthrop, telling him that something has occurred to her; something that she cannot control. Although Zinthrop is barely able to pay attention, she hectors him to make more serum pronto. The discussion draws the nurse into Zinthrop's room and right into Janice, whose trauma has triggered another werewasp episode. Zinthrop revives long enough to see the werewasp kill the nurse.

Having found Zinthrop's notes, Bill speculates to Mary that Cooper and the watchman have been murdered (He must have read the script.). Suspecting Zinthrop is the key to the deaths, the couple visit him in his room, where they hear an incoherent account of Janice and the nurse. So what does Bill do? Why he sends Mary out along to look for Janice, who from what they read and heard, may be a dangerous killer. Mary finds Janice, now in human form, in her office. She insists they call the police, but Janice refuses and knocks out Mary, taking her to the lab. 

Meanwhile Zinthrop has composed himself enough to tell Bill about Janice and the enzymes when they suddenly hear screams coming from the lab. They race to the lab to find Janice in full werewasp mode after Mary. A struggle ensues, during which Zinthrop grabs a bottle of carbolic acid and hurls it at the werewasp, hitting her right in the face. Burning and in pain, Janice is pushed out of the window to the street forty-four floors below by Bill. At that point Zinthrop grabs his heart and collapses while Bill tends to Mary.


Shot in two weeks for approximately $50,000, the film is typical Corman: he seldom shot more than one take unless there was a major error or malfunction on the set. As a result, the direction is choppy at best, with the dialogue scenes suffering the most, as the framing of the characters doesn't always align correctly as Corman cuts back and forth, resulting in noticeably awkward editing. Many scenes simply have the characters walking or driving around for long sequences. These are set-ups; quick and cheap to produce and pad out the film. 

As for special effects, Corman sent for mechanical effects or rather than camera tricks, which would have cost more in money and time. For instance, during the scenes where the Wasp Woman attacks on the necks of her victims, star Susan Cabot squirted chocolate sauce in her mouth before filming. When she was close enough to her costar's neck, she simply spit out the sauce so that it ran down the victim's neck. In black and white, the sauce looks like thick blood. 

In the final scene, where Bill and Zinthrop fight the Wasp Woman, Zinthrop tosses a bottle of acid at her head. Someone had filled the 'breakaway' bottle with water, and it was so heavy that when it struck her she said, "I thought my teeth had been knocked through my nose!" To simulate the burning acid smoke was doused onto the antennas of her costume, but the smoke went up her nostrils. After falling through the window and unable to breathe, she tore some skin off along with her monster makeup, leaving a huge purple mark on her neck while someone threw water on her when she was out of camera range. 

Corman is applauded by many contemporary film scholars who see the film the first feminist horror film, and this is mostly due to the strength of Cabot’s performance. A woman leading a large corporation and using men as means to her end (even killing couple along the way) was a novelty for 1959. However, the film is also loaded with conventional patriarchal themes. For instance, the company’s problems are blamed on her aging physical appearance, the implication being that the company wouldn’t be in such a mess if a man was in charge. After Janice receives Zinthrop’s letter detailing his idea she takes it to head chemist Cooper. But after he tells her the idea as no chance of working we find that she has already called Zinthrop in for an interview, and her idea of being the guinea pig is a direct allusion to feminine vanity. While men are motivated by success and power, women are motivated by vanity. The idea seems to be that only women pursue a younger self, which then as now went against direct experience.


The Wasp Woman was the first release from The Filmgroup, a production and distribution company founded by Roger and Gene Corman in 1959. It debuted in theaters as part of as double bill with Beast From Haunted Cave.

Uncredited director Jack Hill added a prologue with Zinthrop at the honey company to further pad the film for television release.
This was Susan Cabot’s final film. Born in Boston and raised in a series of eight foster homes, she attended high school in Manhattan, where she took an interest in dramatics and joined the school dramatic club. Later, while trying to decide between a career in music or art, she illustrated children's books during the day and sang at Manhattan's Village Barn at night. She began her acting career in 1947 in the film Kiss of Death as an uncredited restaurant extra. In addition to The Wasp Woman, she appeared in five other Corman films from around this time: Carnival Rock(1957), Sorority Girl (1957), The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), and Machine-Gun Kelly (1958). Aside from a highly publicized romance with Jordan’s King Hussein (said to be instigated at the request of the CIA to prove the King with some company during his U.S. visit), Susan was married twice and had one son who suffered from dwarfism. Sadly, she was murdered on December 10, 1986, by her son who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the crime.

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