The Wasp Woman, 1959
Produced and directed by Roger Corman, but without a script by either Richard Matheson or Charles B. Griffith. That should be enough to tell you, assuming you are a bad movie lover, more or less what level this movie is playing at.
If not, then allow me to clue you in. It means that the movie is probably entertaining, but in not good in any respect.
And that’s almost right, on both counts.
It’s almost entertaining, insofar as it’s a Roger Corman monster movie. Except that the monster movie scenes are the least interesting in the film. And they clash, rather badly, with what has gone before.
And it’s almost not good, except that the central performance is subtle, nuanced, and remarkably well-played. (It’s also actress Susan Cabot’s valedictory movie role.)
As The Wasp Woman opens, Dr. Zinthrop is visited in his office on a bee farm by an accountant from the company that owns the farm. The accountant rebukes the doctor for not performing his job, finding better ways of extracting queen bees’ royal jelly. Dr. Zinthrop counters that he has made some (frankly amazing) discoveries about the uses of royal jelly from queen wasps ((No, queen wasps do not make royal jelly, so the entire movie is premised on a mistake. )), and demonstrates them. The accountant, despite having evidence of a product that could make his company insanely wealthy (the royal jelly has kept a dog a puppy, while its sibling is full grown), fires Zinthrop for failing to do his job.
Then we get to see a board meeting of Janice Starling Enterprises, headed by Miss Starling herself (Susan Cabot). For the last quarter, revenues have been falling, and she wants to know if anyone knows why. They all do, but only one boor says it, and bluntly — since removing herself as the face of the company’s products, the public no longer trusts them. Starling tells them that nobody can be young forever, not even herself, but no solution is offered.
Miss Starlin, of course, has a possible solution, which she is meeting Dr. Zinthrop about. He demonstrates his discovery (changing a guinea pig into a rat [?!?]), and she signs him on, under the condition that she be the first human subject of his experiments.
And I pause in thumbnailing the plot here to point out a few things that this movie does differently than you might expect.
Dr. Zinthrop is no mad scientist. He has morals and scruples and a conscience. He is wary of using human subjects as yet, and instead of pushing the pace of his experiments forward, he does his best to reign in. He also is a perceptive man — he accepts Janice Starling’s word and handshake, saying that there’s no need for a contract, because he sees that she is a good woman. He sees beneath her surface, almost instantly, in a way that the people who have worked with her for twenty years never have.
Janice also is not an out of control capitalist megalomaniac. She is trying to save her company, and there is, at no point in the movie, an intimation that her clinging to youth is narcissistic. She is the one who crosses the boundary that leads to her becoming a monster, but she does it out of desperation, to protect the company she has spent her life building, not because she is shallow.
Once the monster movie aspects kick in, it becomes far less interesting. For one thing, the monster outfit is ridiculous. It’s a head mask and a pair of gloves (and black bodystocking, I guess). The gloves are obviously gloves, the head mask is obviously a head mask, and it is in no way, no how convincing. Plus, people keep disappearing, yet nobody gets really curious about where they might have gone. I had the impression that she kept hiding the bodies, but given that there’s dialogue early on about queen wasps devouring their mates, that might have been the intended inference. In which case, it’s nonsense on stilts, because she doesn’t gain an ounce — and one of the folks she kills is Bruno Ve Sota ((Who, if you are not a bad movie nut like me, was an actor who easily massed twice what Ms. Cabot did, if not three times. )).
Oh, another nice touch — it’s left completely ambiguous whether Starling has any knowledge of her monsterly activities. She seems to know something, but it could just be that she’s doing the math, rather than actually remembering her homicidal acts.
All in all, this is substandard Corman, but it has some very interesting stuff going on in it. Can’t recommend it, but I enjoyed it more than I probably ought to have.