The Wasp Woman: A Celebration of 1960 Retrospective

The Wasp WomanTHE WASP WOMAN was producer-director Roger Corman’s attempt to cash in on the success of THE FLY (1958), and although it looks cheap and chintzy, having been shot in five days on a $50,000 budget, it nevertheless has aspects of interest. Historically, it is significant because it is the first film Corman directed for Filmgroup, his then newly formed production and distribution company. Corman had been the primary supplier of films for American International Pictures, which had grown wealthy catering to the drive-in market across the country, and he realized that he needed to get into distribution if he hoped to gain a larger share of the spoils. (While Filmgroup was consistently profitable, it never had a big time success, and Corman wound up abandoning it by 1966).

Secondly, THE WASP WOMAN, like some other early Corman films, raises feminist issues. The story concerns Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) who runs her own beauty products company. In a board meeting, Starlin asks for an explanation as to why her company’s sales have fallen. The film’s protagonist, Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley), who points out that sales fell after Starlin’s face was removed from the company product line (it is implied this occurred recently when Janice turned 40), and the public did not trust the face of the model selected to replace her. Starlin begins to feel desperate as she imagines her life’s work collapsing due to the loss of her looks.

The third significant aspect of THE WASP WOMAN is the fine performance by Susan Cabot (herself 32 at the time). She convincingly portrays the elder Janice by wearing glasses, her hair in a severely pinned back hairstyle, and expressing herself more slowly and deliberately. However, her deliverance seems at hand with the appearance of a scientist named Zinthrop (Michael Mark) who avers the rejuvenating properties of enzymes derived from a wasp’s royal jelly (there were similar beliefs about the property’s of royal jelly from bees at the time). Zinthrop proves his work by injecting a guinea pig with his serum so that it turns into a younger, slimmer guinea pig (actually, Corman used a white mouse which makes this aspect a bit less convincing).

The WASP WOMAN’s script is by actor-writer, and long-time Corman associate, Leo Gordon, based on an idea by Kinta Zettuche.  Gordon makes Bill a bit of a cheapskate who tosses a coin to determine whether he or his date, Janice’s secretary Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris from THE DUNWICH HORROR),  will pay for dinner; she winds up paying, another extension of the exploitation of women theme in the film. Gordon reprises this gag during a scene when the couple are dining out with Bill’s boss Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), whom we see lose the toss and pick up the check. Cooper at first thinks Zinthrop is a con man, but then decides he is something more dangerous—a quack. Mary again gets taken advantage of when she shows the pair Zinthrop’s journal of his experiments, which she has taken without permission from her boss’s desk. Cooper takes the journal with him to study, leaving her vulnerable to her boss’s wrath once the theft has been discovered.

When Zinthrop’s formula has transformed a cat back into a kitten, Starlin is anxious to try it on herself, but after three weeks she is disappointed that she only looks five years younger and suggests upping the dose to accelerate the process. Zinthrop warns her that this would be dangerous, and becomes even more concerned when the kitten changes back into a cat with odd lumps on its back and attacks him with such ferocity that he feels forced to finish off the feline.

Unaware of this, Starlin injects herself with the formula and appears startlingly youthful the next day. Cabot sells this rejuvenation not only by removing her glasses and wearing a more flattering hairstyle (some Hollywood clichés never disappear), but also by acting more youthful and zesty. She announces a plan for a new campaign, though Cooper warns her of the dangers of conflating make-up and medicine in the public’s mind.

Corman’s limited budget and approach shows particularly during a sequence in which Zinthrop is hit by a moving vehicle – which almost takes a page out of Ed Wood’s playbook. We see Zinthrop step off a curb and walk out of frame, followed by the sound of a screeching tires with Zinthrop falling back into frame with a bruise on his noggin. Corman was skilled at blocking his actors to keep his static visuals lively, but he keeps reusing the same few angles on the same few sets over and over again, giving the movie something of a claustrophobic feel.

The Wasp Woman (1960)Naturally, since this was sold as a monster movie (with a highly misleading but delightfully outré poster), it’s time for the Wasp Woman to appear. Unfortunately, the make-up by Grant R. Keats proves grossly inadequate (a common failing in many of Corman’s early films). Corman wisely keeps the lighting level low to prevent giving the audience a really good look at the Wasp Woman, which consists of a black-furred mask with multi-faceted, bulging eyes and a pair of furry hands that have stingers on the thumbs. Cabot moves quickly and wears a black catsuit when wearing this outfit, but it is clear the transformation does not extend below her chin as her neck is normal. There is no explanation given why the formula sometimes makes her younger and more beautiful and at other times turns her into this monstrosity.

Her first victim is a night watchman played by Bruno Ve Sota (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES). As Cabot told Tom Weaver and John Brunas, “I was supposed to bite their necks and draw blood. Roger wanted to see blood. And so when I attacked everybody, I had Hershey’s Chocolate syrup in my mouth—which I proceeded to blurp, right on their necks! What we did for Roger Corman!” Her victims, once killed, are never seen again (and just what she did with the bodies is never established).

THE WASP WOMAN’s score is by Fred Katz, who also did the score for Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But while his comical, jazzy score suited a film about a talking, carnivorous plant, it seems out of place here – jaunty and jovial at times that call for a more dark and exciting approach.

Zinthrop is discovered lying in a hospital bed, having suffered from brain damage. The scene provides a rare opportunity for Corman to have a cameo in one of his own productions, as Zinthrop’s doctor. Running out of the formula and planning the launch of her new line of rejuvenating cosmetics, a desperate Starlin arranges for Zinthrop to be taken to a bed at her business with an accompanying nurse, whom she attacks when she suddenly transforms right in front of the recovering Zinthrop.

The climax of THE WASP WOMAN proved particularly trying for Cabot. According to Mark McGee in his book Roger Corman, The Best of the Cheap Acts, Corman wanted to film the action climax of the film in a single take. Michael Mark was to pick up and throw a bottle marked carbolic acid at the wasp woman, and then Cabot was to duck down while a technician applied some smoke on her mask, after which she would pop up and then fall backwards through a window. Unfortunately for Cabot, Corman neglected to have Mark toss a break-away glass bottle; the real thing hit the actress like a rock, making her feel as if her lower teeth had been forced through her nose.*  Trooper that she was, she kept on, but the technician applied too much smoke, which quickly went inside the only opening in the mask, Cabot’s breathing passageso that she inhaled it into her lungs. She clawed and scratched at the mask on the mattress on the other side of the broken window, finally tearing it off but taking some of her skin in the process.

THE WASP WOMAN marked Cabot’s final film in Hollywood. She had previously worked on such epics as CARNIVAL ROCK, SORORITY GIRL, WAR OF THE SATELLITES, MACHINE-GUN KELLY and the infamous THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT. Sadly, she ended tragically when she was murdered by her own son, Timothy Scott Roman, at the age of 59. Her co-star Anthony Eisley would go on to star in Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS, “The Brain of Colonel Barham” episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME, and THE MIGHTY GORGA.

When Allied Artists picked up Filmgroup films for television syndication, they wanted THE WASP WOMAN to run longer, so director Jack Hill was hired to shoot additional footage, including an opening in which Michael Mark, wearing a beekeeper outfit, picks up a branch with a wasp’s nest on it; a scene in which Mark shows his prior boss a full grown Doberman and a Doberman puppy, claiming both are the same age, which results in his getting fired; and a sequence in which a flunky searches town for the missing scientist. These scenes added another 7 minutes to the original 66 minute running time, and most public domain copies of the film are from this television version.

wasp_woman_poster_02cropCorman has been revered for both promoting women. Gale Anne Hurd has said that she didn’t know sexism existed in Hollywood until after she stopped working for Corman, and Roger has given many talented female writers and directors their first opportunities to make a movie. His wife Julie Corman has herself become a respected producer, many of whose films have a feminist message. At the same time, Corman also understands the exploitation market.  THE WASP WOMAN reflects its maker with its combination of some cleverness and social consciousness with cost-cutting approach and meeting the basic needs of the marketplace.

THE WASP WOMAN (1960). Director-producer: Roger Coman. Screenplay: Leo Gordon from a story by Kinuta Zertuche. Art direction: Daniel Haller. Photography: Harry C. Newman. Music: Fred Katz. Editor: Carlo Lodato. Make-up: Grant R. Keats. Cast: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Michael Mark, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Frank Gerstle, Bruno Ve Sota, Roy Gordon, Frank Wolff, Carolyn Hughes, Lynn Cartwright, Lani Mars

FOOTNOTE:

  • According to journalist Tom Weaver, who interviewed Susan Cabot, the bottle was made of break-away glass and would not have hurt Cabot if it had been empty. The problem was that the bottle was filled with water, which added mass to the impact when it hit her face.

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About the Author

Dennis Fischer

Author of Horror Film Directors and Science Fiction Film Directors (both from McFarland).

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