[June 25, 1960] Sting in its Tale (The Wasp Woman)

Necessity is the mother of invention.  What is a review writer to do when all the literary science fiction material to review has dried up?

Why, it’s time to head to the drive-in and sample the visual science fiction material!

Now, I’ve been dreading this avenue because the Summer blockbuster line-up hasn’t hit the silver screen yet, and all the schlock-houses are filled with, well, schlock.  Like 12 to the Moon.  Moreover, my daughter is away at camp, so I don’t have my usual date for the movies.

Still, I have a duty to provide entertaining reading and listening material for my fans, now that you number over ten.  It wouldn’t do to take a week hiatus just because my queue is empty.  So I scoured the listing in the local paper and found a cinema in Oceanside that still had The Wasp Woman (paired with another film, in which I had no interest) and resigned myself to a lonely, miserable evening with naught but Roger Corman and a bag of popcorn. 

Imagine my surprise when my wife, who normally has an allergic aversion to sci-fi drek, offered to come along! 

As it turns out, the movie was surprisingly decent (and very short–about an hour), and we never got to emulate our parked neighbors by engaging in a proper bout of necking.  Here is what we got for our troubles:

Africanized Honey Wasps

I was expecting one of those rural numbers where a bunch of badly acted cops chase after a rubber-suited monster, the kind that feasts on young couples in lover’s lane.  The sort of thing that Ed Wood is (in)famous for.

Instead, Wasp Woman takes place almost entirely within the board room and offices of the Starling Cosmetics Company, a business with an 18-year history of success that is currently suffering a precipitous downturn.  Why?  The ad execs (not all of whom are men!) and the company executive (a woman!) are in agreement that the lag in sales occurred when the owner of the company, Janice Starlin, stopped supporting the product lines with her own face.  Ms. Starlin believes that a 40-year old, no matter how lovely, cannot be a convincing glamour girl.

Absolutely hideous

This sets up a plausible motivation for Starlin’s next actions.  She has recently received a letter from a Mr. Zinthrop, an eccentric old scientist who claims to have found the secret to eternal youth: enzyme extracted from the wasp royal jelly.  She is skeptical, at first, but he convinces her by reverting a cat to a kitten and a guinea pig to… a rat.  Well, I suppose it was meant to be a guinea piglet.  Starlin then requests that Zinthrop test the product on her.  He is reluctant to begin human trials so soon, but he ultimately gives in.

Sherlock Holmes: The Later Years

Starlin gives Zinthrop carte blanche, and he proceeds to produce enough enzyme to restore Starlin’s youth. 

Job title?  Er… how about ‘mad scientist’?

Over the course of several weeks, the elixir begins to work, but its progress is not quick enough for Starlin, who feels (perhaps justifiably) that her company is teetering on the brink, and only her face can bring it back.  After Zinthrop mentions off-handedly that he is working on a stronger version of the formula for use in topical creams, Starlin sneaks a dose.

Heroin is good for the skin, you know

The new concoction works a miracle, restoring Starlin to her early 20s.  She announces that, not only will she be launching the new line of Starlin cosmetics, but she intends to market this astounding new product. 

But all is not well in mad science land.  One of the cats injected with the new formula grows vestigial wasp wings and attacks Zinthrop.  He survives, but he is crestfallen.  Unusually, he’s got a conscience, and he wants to tell Starlin as soon as possible, but he is involved in an automobile accident before he can convey the message.

Starlin, desperate to retain her youth (it’s never stated that multiple doses are necessary, but perhaps she’s just become addicted to the formula), quickly runs through the rest of Zinthrop’s injections, unaware of the danger to herself… and others.

Meanwhile, Starlin’s staff continue to worry for their bosses’ physical and mental health.  At first, they are concerned that Zinthrop is a simple confidence man.  Then they become convinced he is a quack, and that his promises will do irrepairable harm to Starlin’s psyche.  When Starlin rejuvenates, their worries allay briefly, but then she begins suffering from piercing headaches.

“She retracted her support for Kennedy right after she started taking wasp extract…”

The oldest of the execs decides to snoop around in the laboratory and see what’s up.  There, he is attacked by a hideous wasp woman, who beats him unconscious and devours him completely.  This effect is as low-budget as one might expect from a movie with a $50,000 bankroll.  Still, the transformed Starlin does look sufficiently creepy, and Corman wisely keeps her in the shadows.

The New Face of Starlin Cosmetics!

After the susbsequent grisly death of the company’s night watchman, concern rises.  Zinthrop is found and taken to the company building, but he can’t remember what he was going to tell Starlin.  She pleads with him to help her, but he cannot. 

“Blink twice if I should stop taking wasp extract and killing innocent people.”

Agitated, she turns into a wasp woman again and kills Zinthrop’s nurse.  Starlin’s secretary and her boyfriend show up shortly thereafter.  Starlin bites and drags off the secretary, but the wasp woman is stopped by a combination of carbolic acid and a velocitious defenestration before she can kill again.

Cue credits.

This is such an odd movie.  I’ve said many times that my favorite part of a horror film is the first twenty minutes when it seems that things will be hunky dory for all concerned.  The stronger extract isn’t even introduced until halfway through the movie’s running time, and the wasp woman doesn’t make her debut until the last 20 minutes. 

As a result, what you really have is an interesting sort of character drama.  Aging cosmetics company queen must cope with an increasingly desperate situation.  What sells this drama is Ms. Susan Cabot (originally Harriet Shapiro).  Yes, the Ms. Cabot who was the paramour of the young King Hussein of Jordan last year before he found out she was Jewish.  She takes the role seriously, and I found myself caring less about seeing the wasp monster and more about her dilemma.  In fact, the whole thing feels a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone: a personal crisis with a detour into the surreal. 

It’s hardly perfect, of course.  It’s a clear filching of The Fly, even down to the utterance of “Heeeelp me!”  The frenetic jazz soundtrack, a hallmark of a lot of movies these days, will either be your cup of tea or it won’t.  While Cabot is generally good, the rest of the cast has its uneven moments, though rarely distractingly so.

On the other hand, the film’s watchability is aided by its rather progressive attitude.  The cast is balanced quite evenly, gender-wise, and there is very little of the sexism that characterizes our culture these days.  Starlin is a quite sympathetic character, with the sort of strength and poise one would expect of a corporate head.

Add to that the not-unsuccessful moralizing (an anti-drug message, an anti-reckless science message), and you’ve got a thoroughly enjoyable hour of entertainment.  Of course, it’s just that.  It’s not art for the ages.  But as we saw in I married a Monster from Outer Space, one can find quality in the oddest of places.

12 thoughts on “[June 25, 1960] Sting in its Tale (The Wasp Woman)”

  1. Thank you for letting us share this interesting film. Love your captions!

    I gather the kitten’s agent didn’t want her being upstaged by a baby guinea pig. But there was no real risk of that.

  2. I’d just like to make it clear, as the author’s wife, that it is the “dreck” part of the equation I generally object to, rather than the “sci-fi” part.  In fact, I’m allergic to dreck of any kind. 

    That being said, I must agree that this movie surprised me.  I’d expected low-budget special effects, poor acting, and possibly torn clothing on a female star intended to be titillating. 

    Instead, it actually felt like someone put some thought into this movie.  The “woman consumes wasp royal jelly and develops wasp-like characteristics” premise is, of course, ridiculous (my husband suggested that next she would take some aspirin and turn into a willow tree).  But if you accept that premise, the characters behave in a human and believable manner.  Janice is not a hysterical character, she is played as a quiet, practical, determined business woman who’s built her company from scratch and doesn’t want to lose it.  She’s not desperate to regain her youth for romantic reasons, which would be the typical sort of plot I would expect from this type of movie.  Her employees never question her ability or imply that she can’t do her job because she’s a woman.  They express concern that she’s being tricked, but not because she’s a silly female, but rather because she desperately wants to hold on to her company.  It’s clear that they genuinely care about her and respect her, despite their worry.

    Also, the wasp mask was actually pretty creepy-looking.  Perhaps someday Hollywood will re-use the style in some film yet to be made about “aliens among us”.

  3. Tanks for mentioning I Married a Monster from Outer Space, which I think is going to be seen as a classic B movie in the future.  I could be wrong of course, after all who can predict the future.

    1. It’s all right, Ashley.  I know of your fondness for armored fighting vehicles. 

      Married was definitely unexpectedly good.  I’m glad I’m not the only one with that opinion! 

      ‘Tanks’ for your letter!

  4. Corman is surprising. Sure, just about everything he puts out is schlock, but it’s schlock with a hidden core. His direction is usually a bit above the usual B-movie level and there’s often more depth than appears at face value.

    But boy can he churn them out. House of Usher just came out a few days ago and I understand he’s got a couple more in the pipeline for this year: some sort of post-apocalyptic thing and something about a “horror shop” if my contacts are right.

  5. I saw this one a little while ago, and wrote something about it.


    The most interesting theme I noticed is the fact that everybody takes it for granted that a woman who is “old” (say, thirty-ish) is all washed up.  The lead character is assumed to be worthless because she has become slightly less than stunningly beautiful.

    It’s interesting to compare this movie with a similar one released (escaped?) this year, “The Leech Woman.”  Same “woman going to extreme measures to stop aging” theme.

    Bad science alert: Wasps don’t make royal jelly.  Bees do.

    I’ve already seen “House of Usher,” released just a few days ago.  It’s actually quite good.  Having a screenplay by Richard Matheson helps a lot, as well as having Vincent Price.  It’s surprisingly classy for a low-budget Corman movie.  Maybe we can look forward to more Poe adaptations.

    I understand that the horror shop thing is going to be a black comedy, similar in tone to the recent Corman film “A Bucket of Blood,” which I quite enjoyed.

    1. Some people have a talent for making do with very little.  I imagine Corman would not improve with a larger budget.

      Regarding being over the hill, it’s important to note (and I thought this a nice point), that at no point in the movie did anyone say, “Honey, you’re just gettin’ too old!”

      In fact, what I got from the comments at the boardroom table was that Starlin’s staff thought it best that she continue being the face of the company.  Starlin, herself, was the one who felt it was a bad idea.

      It’s subtle, but there.

      Bucket of Blood, which I now want to see, stars Cabot, too.  It’s too bad she is, I understand, giving up the screen to go back to theatre.

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