In our culture, we are obsessed with physical beauty. To want to look our best is not a bad thing, but sometimes the pursuit of youth and aesthetic excellence becomes so relentless that it can only be achieved at the loss of one’s humanity. In Roger Corman’s 1960 chiller THE WASP WOMAN, we meet a once young, once stunning cosmetics magnate faced with the agonizing truth that time has caught up to her. With her company in financial decline and her looks no longer able to sell the public on her products, this aging executive turns to Professor Eric Zinthrop’s experimental “miracle” serum derived from wasp enzymes in hope of making herself young again. What it does is make her a monster.
Like all Corman exploitation flicks, THE WASP WOMAN finds its origins in more “respectable” fare. THE FLY was one of the last big horror hits of the 1950s, spawning two sequels and opening the door for a host of imitators featuring men transformed into hideous beasts by reckless modern science. R.C., knowing how to capitalize on a trend, took this basic notion and added the novel twists that the monster is a female and the experiment which altered her was conducted for reasons of pure vanity and self-indulgence, rather than the advancement of science. From this came THE WASP WOMAN, written by Leo Gordon and based on a story by Kinta Zertuche. With its unique variations, the film is as much an atomic age PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY as it is a knock-off of THE FLY, and it sets the stage for much horror cinema to come. Before the 1960s, science gone awry in film was simply the result of good men trying to uncover the secrets of the universe. THE WASP WOMAN was one of the first terror tales to depict man’s thoughtless plundering of God’s domain as simple, selfish avarice. Janice Starlin (played by Susan Cabot) is not evil per se. In fact, she appears to be well-liked and respected by her employees. She is simply a woman used to looking a certain way and enjoying a degree of professional success because of it. She is uncomfortable with her own mortality as it stares back at her from the mirror every morning, and she grows more and more desperate to recapture her past glory with each new wrinkle and each new financial report. While still a far cry from the greedy land developers and government weapons brokers that would create the cinematic terrors of the subsequent decades, Janice Starlin represents a step toward the cynicism of modern fright films.
Though it was shot for under $50,000 and took only two weeks to complete, THE WASP WOMAN is one of Corman’s most polished, professional-looking productions. The no-name cast is glamorous and delivers solid performances all around, with Cabot distinguishing herself as the tortured Starlin. Much of the action is set in an office building, and the sets look authentic and credible. Corman himself directs, displaying an understanding of pacing, blocking and shot composition extremely rare in low-budget films (including many of his own). Fred Katz’s score has just the right mix of overblown horror themes and sultry jazz riffs to accompany the lurid but lucid plot and the lighting throughout is atmospheric and sharp. Most notable is the lack of salaciousness in a tale which could easily have lent itself to a lot of leering cheesecake and soap opera melodrama. There are no bikinis or backroom trysts, and the tightly constructed story is never derailed by the sort of superfluous exploitation scenes that have become a Corman trademark over the years. Considering the fact that THE WASP WOMAN was directed by the same man who would twenty years later insist on the inclusion of multiple scenes of mutant fish-men raping helpless women in HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, the strict adherence to the narrative and noticeable lack of T&A (in a film about the beauty trade) is utterly remarkable. This movie demonstrates that before he became the profit-minded businessman he is known as today, Corman was once an honest-to-goodness filmmaker. THE WASP WOMAN is nearly as good as any more expensive, A-list horror film of the period.
That isn’t to say that the film is perfect. The pseudo-science upon which the entire plot is founded is shaky at best, and it is a stretch that a gifted and ambitious scientist like Zinthrop starts out the story working for a honey manufacturer, rather than applying his considerable expertise to greater and more profitable pursuits. The monster scenes themselves are somewhat awkward, the wasp woman make-up a bit silly looking and never shown very clearly. In a couple shots, it is clear that the black fur that covers Cabot’s transformed body is conspicuously missing from her neck. A pivotal scene in which Zinthrop is nearly killed in a car accident is shot in the same manner as Bela Lugosi’s posthumous exit from PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, with actor Michael Mark stepping out of frame followed by the shriek of brakes and an audible thud. When Starlin kills a nosey co-worker, she conveniently leaves his trademark pipe in the room for several days for her suspicious employees to find. A weary Zinthrop retires from his top secret research in the lab and inexplicably forgets to close the door all the way, allowing a snooping detractor access to his work. To show the age-reversing effects of Zinthrop’s serum on animals, two test guinea pigs are somehow turned into rats. Bruno Ve Sota (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES) appears briefly as an obese night watchmen, complete with embarrassing music cues that let the audience know that we’re supposed to find fat people inherently funny. This bit is especially unsettling in a film which specifically sets out to decry society’s emphasis on physical appearance, and is the movie’s worst moment. It’s a shame that these flaws weren’t corrected, because without them, THE WASP WOMAN might be a genuine horror classic.
Still, the movie is head-and-shoulders above most drive-in fare of the era. Often films as set-bound as this one feel tedious and cheap, with the screenwriter and director floundering around trying to find something for the actors to do until the bloodletting starts. In THE WASP WOMAN, Corman makes good use of the limitations of his locations. As a woman distinctly uncomfortable with her appearance, Starlin feels trapped in her work environment. Her company is her life and, without the looks to keep it afloat, her office has become a prison of her own making. For her employees, the mystery of Zinthrop’s research and the ill effects it may have on their beloved boss are consuming. The stranger things around the office become, the more the staff finds themselves preoccupied with learning the truth. Anyone who’s ever worked closely with a group of people knows that workplace drama, no matter how trivial it ends up being, can take on a life all its own, and this film features as authentic a depiction of the relationships between coworkers as you’re likely to see in a monster movie. All of this leads to a tense, claustrophobic climax in which the building itself becomes part of the drama. Secretary Mary Dennison (played by Barboura Morris) goes to Starlin’s office to plead with her to call the police about the bizarre happenings at almost the exact moment that Zinthrop recovers from temporary memory loss and warns ad man Bill Lane (Fred Eisley) that Starlin is dangerous. Of course, the inner insect takes over, the resulting struggle ending with the acid-scarred wasp woman crashing through the window of her office and plummeting to her death. There is deliberate irony in the fact that the disfigurement of her face (even her bug face) with acid proves the fatal blow to a woman so obsessed with her own beauty, and this killing stroke is delivered by Zinthrop, the very man who promised her aesthetic restoration in the first place. This ending may not match the chilling tragedy of THE FLY, but it is far more poignant and powerful than one would expect from a B-movie of this variety.
Corman would remake THE WASP WOMAN for cable television in the 1990s, but the result was not as satisfying or memorable. Reveling in the temptations so prudently avoided in the original, the remake is padded with bare flesh and graphic gore, and grisly make-up effects take precedence over performance and plot. The first cinematic version of this story is an expertly-paced, well-acted cautionary tale about placing too much emphasis on physical appearance, and it holds up remarkably well in today’s world of eating disorders, discount plastic surgery and Rogaine. The message that our basic humanity is too high a price to pay for flawless skin and a full head of hair is one that men and women of the new millennium probably ought to hear. Though it’s fundamentally a cheap little monster film crafted to sell drive-in movie tickets, THE WASP WOMAN is also a very effective reminder that what makes us beautiful is not always what’s on the outside, and that true ugliness stems more from who you are and what you value than what you look like in the mirror. As such, this film is definitely worth a look.