Film

Don't Open That Door! #38: 'The Wasp Woman' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: "animal cruelty" gets a whole new meaning in The Wasp Woman.


The Wasp Woman

Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Susan Cabot, Fred Eisley, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Michael Mark, Bruno Ve Sota
US release date: 1959-10-30

Alternative titles: Invasion of the Bee Girl; Me So Hornet

POSITIVES:

Campy movie benefits from straight-faced performances.

Interesting subtext re: societal pressures on women to look "young".

Straight-talkin' receptionists provide fun change of pace.

Old-to-young metamorphosis is startling without being overdone.

Good pace once it gets going, but…

NEGATIVES:

…starts very slow.

Monster screen time is minimal.

Some dialogue rather stilted.

SYNOPSIS: Looking for The Next Big Thing in the cosmetics industry, makeup maven Janice Starlin hires recently-unemployed apiatrist -- that's beekeeper to you and me, folks -- Dr. Zinthrop. (You can tell he's a scientist by his accent.) Of course, this being a Roger Corman movie, it's more than likely that the Next Big Thing will turn out to be The Next Bad Thing, but Starlin doesn't know that. Yet.


Before he got himself unemployed, Dr. Z had been performing experiments with royal wasp jelly that turned big dogs into small dogs and guinea pigs into rats. (Those bugs have some serious mojo.) This failed to impress the honey company he worked for, so they showed him the door. He promptly talks Starlin into giving him work, notwithstanding the fact that he's wacky enough to be on first-name basis with his insects. Before you can say, "Brilliant eccentric or unstable crackpot?" Dr. Z is hard at work on The Next Dumb Thing in his special, um, cosmetics research lab. This thrills the rapidly-approaching-middle-aged Starlin, who above all else dreads becoming The Next Old Thing. Under Dr Z's watchful yet wacky eye, she undergoes youth-rejuvenating injections in the hope of turning back the clock. When events don't proceed quickly enough for her liking, she decides to take matters into her own hands -- or arms, actually. This tactic works well enough for a time: Starlin grows visibly younger and is clearly thrilled. Pity she didn't notice what happened to that experimental cat...

Starlin's employees Bill and Mary are perturbed enough about it all to bravely confront the issue by smoking a lot of cigarettes. Before long another colleague, Cooper, disappears except for his pipe, and things take a definite turn for the sinister. It's about this time that Dr Z becomes The Next Bald Thing To Get Hit By A Car, and then the royal jelly really hits the fan. Needless to say, the bodies aren't done piling up yet, and when a burly night watchman shows up as The Next Dead Thing, Bill and Mary scramble to find out what the heck's going on. But by now, it's getting pretty close to That Next Way Too Late Thing.

What gets morbidly stung: A cat; a guy with a pipe; a guy with a gun; a nurse; a vain woman; a scientist who really should have known better.

What gets saved: Revlon, Clairol, etc.

Did you notice? During "attack" sequences, the buzzing of wasps (bees? hornets? mothers-in-law?) is mixed into the background music. Sweet.

Moral of the story: Aging gracefully is the best revenge.

Somehow their careers survived: Susan Cabot (Janice Starling) appeared in a number of 1950s features, including westerns like Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Gunsmoke (1953) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), while Fred aka Anthony Eisley (Bill) went on to roles in Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), The Tormentors (1971) and 1978's Monster. Barboura Morris (Mary) would star in director Robert Corman's 1960 cult favorite A Bucket of Blood, as well as the same director's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). William Roerick (Cooper)'s career was brief, though he did appear in 1973's The Love Machine, while Michael Mark (Zinthrop) had been in movies since the 1920s; in the '50s he landed roles in Phantom From Space (1953), Attack of the Puppet People (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959) among many others. Bruno Ve Sota (watchman) played hard-luck Dave in Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Roger Corman (producer/director) is a low-budget legend out there in cult-film land, having helmed such projects as Swamp Women (1955) and She-Gods of Shark Reef (1956). See next week's entry for The Day the World Ended (1955) for more details about his long and storied creer. Later, he would direct some notable films, including the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960) with Jack Nicholson, anti-Klan hellraiser The Intruder (1961) with William Shatner, and post-apocalyptic comedy Gas-s-s! ... or, It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970).


BOTTOM LINE: Low-budget thriller sees Corman working well with stronger-than-average material and performances that make up for laughable special effects.

NEXT WEEK: The Day the World Ended (1955)

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