THE WASP WOMAN (1960)

Synopsis: Scientist Dr Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) is fired from Halliday Honey when it is discovered that he is conducting research with wasps instead of merely extracting bee royal jelly, as he was hired to do. Zinthrop pleads that he has discovered an enzyme extract with amazing regenerative powers, but his employers are unmoved. The president and founder of Janice Starlin Enterprises (Susan Cabot), a cosmetics company, chairs a board meeting, demanding from her team an explanation of why her company's sales have fallen so badly over the preceding months. Advertising executive Bill Lane (Fred Eisley) tells her bluntly that it is her fault: sales have fallen ever since she made the decision to remove her own picture from her products; the public no longer trusts them. Janice is deeply hurt by this, but can only point out sadly that she had no choice: even she cannot remain "a glamour girl" forever…. Janice's assistant, Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris), tells her that a Mr Zinthrop is there to see her. Before seeing Zinthrop, Janice calls her head of research, Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), into her office, asking him his opinion of royal jelly as a cosmetic aid. Cooper agrees it can have beneficial properties, but that it depends very much upon individual reactions. However, when Janice mentions the possibility of using extracts from queen wasp royal jelly in such a way, Cooper advises her strongly against it. Janice meets with Zinthrop, warning him that she will need tangible proof of his extraordinary claims. Nothing loath, Zinthrop unveils a cage containing two full-grown rats. He injects one with his extract and, under Janice's stunned gaze, it reverts to a juvenile stage. Zinthrop cautions Janice that his extract is only experimental, and has yet to be tested on a human subject. She tells him that it will be - on her…. Zinthrop's secret research, and his carte blanche status within the company, alarms Janice's subordinates, who fear that she is being taken in by a con-artist. Bill asks Mary to find out what she can about what Zinthrop is doing. After more successful animal tests, Zinthrop begins to treat Janice with his extract. As the weeks pass, Janice frets over the slowness of her progress, although Zinthrop assures her she looks at least five years younger already. He then tells her about a new concentrated form of his extract, which he thinks would work in a face cream. Mary purloins Zinthrop's original letter to Janice and shows it to Bill and Arthur. Arthur warns the others that Zinthrop is something much more dangerous than a con-artist: a quack. Late that evening, Janice makes a fateful decision: she steals into Zinthrop's laboratory, and injects herself with his new concentrated extract….

Comments: Considering that it was produced between--- Well, perhaps Golden Age would be putting it a bit too strongly: between the Pyrite Age of Roger Corman's mid-to-late fifties science fiction films, and the genuine artistry of his Poe adaptations of the sixties, The Wasp Woman is a disappointment. It was not at all an uncommon occurrence for Corman's ambitions to outstrip his budget (indeed, how could it have been otherwise?), but this is one instance where the end product truly suffered as a consequence. Made for a pittance and shot in less than a week, The Wasp Woman not only looks cheap, but lacks most of the subsidiary virtues that make many of Corman's other films from this era so improbably entertaining. Its cast (with one exception) is unappealing, its screenplay is patchy and sorely lacking in wit, and its "special effects", well…. However, the central concept of the film is an intriguing one, even if it is never developed as strongly as it should have been. While Corman himself claims that The Wasp Woman's genesis lay in an article on the possible cosmetic applications of bee royal jelly, a more likely "inspiration" was the unexpected financial success the previous year of The Fly. In one sense, at least, The Wasp Woman outdoes its model. Instead of a mere accident, the transformation of cosmetics queen Janice Starlin is the result of a deliberate yet fatal step taken by a desperate woman. The most typically "Corman-esque" aspects of The Wasp Woman are its sympathy for its ultimately monstrous female protagonist, and its understanding of the social and financial pressures that drove her to experiment upon herself. Unfortunately, once Janice has transformed, the story ceases to be about her in any meaningful way, and becomes merely an all-too-familiar tale of a monster on the rampage; and a pretty pathetic monster, at that. This letdown makes it difficult for the viewer to overlook, let alone forgive, the film's more egregious shortcomings - like the complete lack of reaction from any of the other characters to the various disappearances that result from Janice's predacious activities. Also hard to ignore is the repeated substitution of one form of animal for another. This is perhaps most apparent in the laboratory scene, wherein a large guinea-pig injected by Zinthrop turns into a small rat! (I'm giving the film the benefit of the doubt and assuming that both animals were meant to be rats, but still--- They couldn't dig up two rats!?) And then there's the fact that the insects crawling around beneath the opening credits of The Wasp Woman are clearly bees! And this brings us to a couple of slight scientific errors to be found in the script, namely that (i) royal jelly is made for queen bees, not by them; and (ii) wasps don't make royal jelly at all! Whatever the virtues of The Wasp Woman, entomological accuracy isn't among them.

However, The Wasp Woman does indeed have virtues - or at least, one big one; and that is the intelligent, detailed and quite moving performance of Susan Cabot as Janice Starlin. In justice, it must be pointed out that Cabot was given quality assistance by the film's cinematographer, Harry Newman, and its make-up artist, Grant Keats. Cabot was in her early thirties when she made The Wasp Woman, and over the course of the story has to look both ten years older, and ten years younger. She succeeds at both admirably. Many film productions, even those made by major studios, insist upon aging an actress (even one who is only meant to be about forty, as here) by slapping a grey wig on her and burying her beneath about three inches of latex and greasepaint. In contrast, the work done here is commendably subtle. The "aged" Janice is made so merely through unobtrusive shadow make-up, complemented by a severe pair of glasses and unflattering camera-work; "young" Janice is made up accordingly, and so lovingly photographed that she literally glows. As much as either of these things, however, it is the performance of Cabot that carries the transformation: she creates purely through her body language two very distinct characters. As the elder Janice she is brisk and assertive; as the younger, bright, vivacious and almost giddy. The tragedy of The Wasp Woman is that these externals have come to define, even to herself, a woman who is clearly so much more than that.

When The Wasp Woman opens, Janice Starlin Enterprises is in financial trouble, its sales falling badly. Advertising executive Bill Lane alone sees a reason, and spells it out bluntly: Janice herself is the problem. Her company's image since its founding, Janice a few months earlier made the decision to remove her own picture from her products: a ploy that has backfired, creating distrust amongst the public. Intent upon blaming their employer for the company's position (and covering their own you-know-whats), not one of Janice's colleagues gives any indication of understanding why she took this step in the first place, still less of recognising the courage and the self-sacrifice that it required. Not even her poignant admission that "Even Janice Starlin can't remain a glamour girl forever" succeeds in winning any response from them. Susan Cabot's acting through this section of the film is wonderfully effective, allowing Janice's pain and loneliness, her fears for her beloved company, and her dread of her inexorable aging, constantly to peep through the veneer of sarcastic authoritarianism which she uses as a shield when dealing with her colleagues. Faced with the dilemma that whatever she does, her company will almost certainly suffer for it, Janice is left at a terrible personal crossroads; and it is at this psychologically vulnerable moment that Eric Zinthrop enters her life.

To me, the single most interesting thing about The Wasp Woman is the character of Dr Zinthrop - or rather, the way in which that character seems to have perceived over the years. Researching this piece, I was unable to find a single review of the film that did not refer to Zinthrop as "a mad scientist"; yet from my perspective, he is one of the sanest, and moreover most ethical scientists found throughout the realm of science fiction. At the film's outset, Zinthrop has made a staggering discovery: that an enzyme extract from the royal jelly of queen wasps [*cough*] is capable of retarding the aging process. In one of filmdom's more amusing depictions of short-sighted bureaucracy, Zinthrop is fired from his job at a commercial apiary for exceeding his budget, the fact that he has just made possibly the most incredible - and most profitable - scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time, being dismissed as an irrelevance by the outraged bean-counter. Out of a job, and out of funding, Zinthrop writes a letter to Janice Starlin, offering his services. When the two meet, Janice demands proof of Zinthrop's extraordinary claims, and he proceeds to give it to her, regressing a rat [sic.] from adulthood to adolescence. Janice immediately offers him a contract, on condition that she herself will be Zinthrop's first human subject, when the time comes.

At this point we are indeed trembling upon the brink of textbook mad science-dom; but then several interesting things happen. For one thing, the deal between Janice and Zinthrop is a handshake agreement: two essentially honourable people have recognised each other, and settled matters accordingly. ("I know you are a good woman, Miss Starlin," Zinthrop comments, declining a legal contract, "even though you don't like other people to know it." In five minutes of Janice's company, Zinthrop has seen further through her façade than her bone-headed colleagues have managed to do over the preceding twenty years.) Secondly, Zinthrop's "demands" are both believable and reasonable. He wants his own lab, check; and a healthy budget, check; and no interference, check. Should he succeed--- Zinthrop asks, sensibly enough, for "a small percentage of the profits", but what he really wants is "full credit for my discoveries". I've rarely heard such credible dialogue in the mouth of a movie scientist. Best of all, though, is Zinthrop's reaction to Janice's insistence that he experiment upon her. Far from leaping at the opportunity, the scientist backs off, insisting that his extract must undergo much more animal testing first. He does, of course, eventually begin experimenting upon Janice, and after testing that we recognise as being grossly inadequate, no matter how successful it appears to have been. But let's be fair here: The Wasp Woman was, after all, made in the pre-Thalidomide era; grossly inadequate testing was standard procedure. Zinthrop's treatment of Janice is carried out slowly and cautiously. It is she who becomes impatient, she who gives in to the exigencies of her situation and goes against the scientist's warnings, overdosing herself with his concentrated extract. If Zinthrop can be blamed for anything, it is failing to recognise the extent of Janice's desperation; he should never have revealed the existence of the concentrate in the first place. But aside from this misstep, of what is Zinthrop guilty? What does he do that can be classified as "mad science"? Nothing, I would have thought; yet four decades of reviewers have labelled, condemned and dismissed him - and they are not the only ones.

Generally, one of the strengths of Roger Corman's films, be they ever so slapdash, is the supporting cast, which manages to be interesting and amusing even if the production around it really isn't. In The Wasp Woman, this is unfortunately not the case. The people surrounding Susan Cabot's Janice Starlin are unlikeable characters portrayed by dull actors. To be fair, this may have been a deliberate choice, to increase our sympathy for Janice (and if so, believe me, it works); but it makes long stretches of the film a hard slog. Zinthrop's presence at Janice Starlin Enterprises, and his evident hold over Janice herself, is sorely resented by Bill Lane, JSE's advertising executive, Arthur Cooper, its head of research, and Mary Dennison, Janice's assistant, who is also involved with Bill. The Wasp Woman is unusual inasmuch as there is no real "romance" anywhere in the story; the Bill/Mary relationship is perfunctorily sketched in at best, and there mainly to justify, or rather excuse, some very dubious behaviour on Mary's part. That said, there is clearly unresolved tension between Janice and Bill; but whether this represents a failed relationship in the past, or a relationship offered and declined, it is impossible to say. However, all of this lends an uncomfortable edge to the attitude of Bill, Arthur and Mary towards Janice, which is patronising and disloyal in the extreme.

Now, you might think that a woman who had founded, built up and run a successful company over the course of twenty years would need to be both strong-minded and strong-willed. Well, not Janice Starlin; or at least, not in the opinion of those who have benefited most from her success. Eric Zinthrop has barely moved into his laboratory before Bill and Arthur make up their minds that he's a con-artist to whom Janice has fallen victim. Bill then convinces Mary to start spying on Janice, which she does, eavesdropping on her phonecalls and stealing her private correspondence. What is disturbing about all of this is that there is no solid basis for any of it; no evidence for or against Zinthrop; and the conspirators barely pretend otherwise. (When Bill first starts ranting against Zinthrop, Mary actually has the temerity to inquire why the scientist can't be on the level, only to be dismissed with a contemptuous, "Oh, women!" This is no answer at all, as Mary rightly points out; so Bill tells her that his distrust of Zinthrop is based upon "male intuition". Yes, you're quite right: Bill is a dick.) There seem to be only two possible explanations for this instinctive hostility towards Zinthrop, each one worse than the other. The conspiracy, and the consequent spying, are of course carried out under the guise of protecting "poor Janice" (although the trio never bothers to consider why "poor Janice" should suddenly be so vulnerable, still less recognise that even if that were the case, their own attitude towards her might have had a lot to do with it), but it reeks of self-interest. Arthur, of course, should Zinthrop succeed, will be out of a job. Bill, that old dog in the manger, clearly resents anyone having influence over Janice but himself; while Mary is, in many ways, the worst of the three, since she has no real suspicion of Zinthrop, but nevertheless agrees to spy on her boss not out of true concern for her, but as a means of "buying" her boyfriend's approval. However, none of this explains the instant distrust of Zinthrop, even when he has barely set foot on the premises of JSE, that is evinced not just by the trio of conspirators, but by everyone that the scientist encounters. (Janice's secretary, for instance, sums him up as "a two-eyed Dr Cyclops".) If one were to put the nastiest possible construction upon this, one might have to conclude that this antagonism is provoked by the fact that Zinthrop has - gasp! - a foreign accent. But perhaps I'm being unfair in accusing the characters of bigotry. More likely, they are simply guilty of invoking a standard piece of movie shorthand: "foreign" = "scientist", "scientist" = "bad". Nevertheless, the fact remains that Zinthrop really does nothing wrong in this film, no matter how strenuously the screenplay tries to convince us otherwise. Ultimately, The Wasp Woman presents us with an interesting variation on a common theme: "mad science" as an Informed Attribute©.

The wasp enzyme treatment does work, but not quickly enough for Janice, who can feel both her company and her personal identity slipping away from her, and hence makes the fatal decision to overdose herself with Zinthrop's concentrate. This is immediately effective: Janice literally bounces into the office the next morning, youthful and radiant, demanding homage from everyone she encounters - and she gets it, too: "junior" Janice is treated with noticeably more respect than her maturer incarnation. (Watching these scenes, you can readily believe that years earlier, a young, vibrant Janice would indeed have chosen her own face to be her company's image, without a thought of the future consequences.) But inevitably, triumph soon turns to tragedy - and the film, reasonably compelling to this point as we suffer along with Janice, becomes dull and silly in turns, as it falls back upon paint-by-numbers monster movie clichés. Zinthrop enters his laboratory to find a cat, which he had regressed to kittenhood, missing from its cage. This creature is discovered perched up on a shelf, two ludicrous nubs meant to represent wasp-like wings stuck onto its shoulder-blades (an "effect" that makes Reptilicus seem aerodynamically sound by comparison). It "flies" at Zinthrop via the time-honoured technique of someone off-camera throwing the poor beast at actor Michael Mark, who struggles with it in a way that makes the titanic battle at the conclusion of Bride Of The Monster look convincing. Zinthrop manages to overcome and kill (and dispose of) this "horrifying" beast, but he is so shocked by what has happened that he stumbles out into the street in a daze, only to be knocked down by a convenient truck. Still more conveniently, Zinthrop has no ID on him; and even more conveniently, he suffers a head injury that makes him unable to recall what the "something important" he had to tell Janice is. And a good thing, too, because otherwise we would have been deprived of The Wasp Woman's single most satisfying moment.

Zinthrop's disappearance sends Janice, who is suffering an adverse physical reaction to her injection, into a panic; and we pass some very boring minutes in the hunt for the missing scientist. Meanwhile, Zinthrop's seeming triumph has thrown the conspirators into still deeper gloom, and Arthur Cooper (visions of a well-deserved future in the unemployment lines no doubt dancing in his head) decides to break into Zinthrop's lab and snoop around. While there, he steals Zinthrop's notebook (another mark in Zinthrop's favour: he is one of those rare movie scientists who actually writes his experiments up properly) and makes the staggering - and unwelcome - discovery that his adversary is neither a con-artist nor a quack. His response is to break into Zinthrop's locked cabinet, with a view to stealing his concentrate. This criminal act is his last, however, as abruptly - the Wasp Woman attacks!! This is both a good thing and a bad thing: bad, because the "wasp" costume is nothing short of pathetic, consisting of a black head-cover with plastic boggle eyes and two limp antennae, and black mittens. Films of this era are notorious for the gap between their advertising art and the finished product, but only The Beast With A Million Eyes challenges The Wasp Woman in terms of outright dishonesty. Be that as it may--- Janice's transformation not only livens up what has become a very dull exercise, but - Arthur Cooper dies! YES!!

Allow me to explain. As Cooper, actor William Roerick gives one of the most irritating performances ever committed to film. He has a pipe, you see - because he's a scientist. And he gestures with that pipe. He fiddles with it. He waves it around for emphasis. He lights it. He puts it out. He puts it in his pocket. He takes it out again. And sometimes - he does all of this within the space of a single scene. It is unbearable! From our very first glimpse of Cooper, smugly applauding Bill Lane's put-down of Janice at the board meeting (pipe clenched between his teeth), I swear, you just want him to die. Bloodily. Painfully. And - he does! (In fact, the first time I saw The Wasp Woman - at a revival screening, double-billed with The Fly - I spent most of the film muttering, "God, I hope she kills him! God, I hope she kills him!" When the moment came, I believe I cheered.) As Cooper tries to steal Zinthrop's discovery, Janice, in full [sic.] wasp regalia, springs from the shadows, wrestles him to the ground, and sinks her, uh, fangs into his throat - and my, it's satisfying! A day or so later, a night watchman (played by an unbilled Bruno Ve Sota) is also unfortunate enough to stumble into Janice, and he goes the way of Arthur Cooper; and when the desperate woman goes to the bed-ridden Zinthrop for help, his nurse becomes her third victim. All of this is entertaining, of course, but it is also ridiculous in the extreme. For one thing, the script insists that wasps devour their victims, and we are supposed to believe that Janice has done so, too (hence no inconvenient bodies lying around). But of course, this would mean that, among other things, the persistently svelte Janice has consumed an entire Bruno Ve Sota - without putting on a single pound. Never mind cosmetics: Janice should be in the diet industry!

But the Wasp Woman's reign of terror is, alas, doomed to be a brief one. Janice has continued to dose herself with Zinthrop's extract, and is suffering severe headaches as a consequence. (Whether Janice knows about her night-time escapades is moot. The script is very fuzzy on that point, although the extent of Janice's panic suggests that she does know, if not the entire truth, then at least that something is badly wrong.) When Zinthrop recovers sufficiently, Janice has him brought back to JSE to convalesce - with, unfortunately for the woman in question, a nurse to look after him. Janice's final transformation and its consequences occur before Zinthrop's horrified gaze, and the scientist makes a valiant effort to pull himself together, trying to convince Bill and Mary of the truth. They, of course, react exactly as you'd expect in a film of this sort: they separate, and Mary goes off on her own to find "an outside line" on which to call the police. In a piece of idiotic contrivance, the waspified Janice suddenly develops a homicidal jealousy of Mary, and attacks her - but doesn't kill her. Sigh. Bill and Zinthrop charge (or in the latter case, at least, stagger) to the rescue, and Janice immediately attacks the scientist. There's gratitude for you. Bill drives her off with a chair, and Zinthrop, dragging himself to his feet, throws a bottle of carbolic acid at her. Janice screams, stumbles backwards, and plunges to her death from a window. And Zinthrop drops dead too - not for any particular reason, except that he's a scientist (with a foreign accent) in a science fiction film. And Bill and Mary survive and wind up in each other's arms. All in all, a thoroughly depressing ending.

The Wasp Woman is a cheap and sloppy little film, but that's not what truly disappoints about it. There was a lot of potential in its story, but unfortunately no-one connected with its production had any interest, apparently, in bringing those things to the foreground. (Oh, sure, I found some meaning and significance in it, but you know me: I could find a hidden message in the instructions on the back of a tea-bag.) While Janice Starlin's angst over the loss of status and identity that accompanies her aging is quite well-realised, thanks almost entirely to Susan Cabot's performance, not enough is made of this; while nothing at all is made of the story's clear drug addiction subtext - although perhaps, in 1960, that would have been a bit too much to expect. On the other hand, it is unforgivable that the script never touches upon - or even, it would seem, recognises - the story's central irony: that as the head of a cosmetics firm, Janice has helped shape and bolster the very physical expectations that are now destroying her. Nor does The Wasp Woman compensate for these various shortcomings with other qualities: interesting characters, for example, or even a sense of humour. The film's only attempt at comedy involves Janice's secretary, Maureen, and her complaints about her boyfriend, Irving (whose main crime, we learn, is that he makes Maureen stay home at night to watch films like Dr Cyclops on TV; some girls don't know when they're well off). Maureen is notable chiefly for her painfully nasal Noo York accent - which miraculously transforms into tones of plummy breathiness whenever she has to answer the phone. (If this joke sounds familiar, it's because Joe Dante reproduced it in The Howling twenty years later.) Of the films made by Roger Corman during this era, I think it can justly be said that he did always try to make them good; and if he couldn't make them good, then he tried to make them funny. The Wasp Woman is a rare example where he largely failed at both. The undeveloped nature of the screenplay puts The Wasp Woman into a rare category: films that I would actually like to see re-made. And eventually, this came to pass - with original director Roger Corman acting as producer. Did this latter version improve upon the earlier one? Find out, by clicking on the links below….

Footnote: I am indebted for the following information to Video Watchdog ( http://www.videowatchdog.com ) magazine (as indeed I am for so much else):

The co-director's credit listed above for Jack Hill is a consequence of The Wasp Woman's release to TV in the 1960s. At a brisk 66 minutes, the film was deemed too short for a network time slot. Hill was hired to lengthen it, which he did by providing two new sequences. One of these opens the film: a leisurely stroll through an apiary, the confrontation between Zinthrop and the angry accountant, and Zinthrop's dismissal. The other consists of a detective - played by Jack Hill! - searching for the missing scientist after his accident. Sadly, this footage is certainly not representative of Hill's work, and adds little to the film but running time. However, it was this version of The Wasp Woman that I saw, so I thought I should mention it.

Footnote: Welcome to Part Three of "That Was Then, This Is Now". Hop on over to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (http://goodbadugly.coldfusionvideo.com) to read Chad Denton's review of the Roger Corman produced, Jim Wynorski directed, 1995 re-make of The Wasp Woman; then stick around while Chad and I debate the merits of both versions.