The Wasp Woman (1959)
Hola, today I will be reviewing a classic (crappy) old black and white sci-fi movie from famed (crappy) director Roger Corman. Much like the majority of Corman's movies (crappy), The Wasp Woman looks like it was filmed in four days and is set almost entirely in two rooms of an office building. Still, though, there is some merit to this movie, if only in the campy Tuesday-night-with-a-box-of-KFC sense.
We open at our only real exterior scene, out in the country at a bee field (where they raise honey bees, duh). We watch as a man smokes out bees and collects honey, and then does it again, and then walks around. I look at my watch. The man collects some more honey, he walks up a road, he looks around. Time ticks on the clock and I start drifting away, curious about how the Lakers game is going. The man carries his box of bees around the field, he stops to adjust his mask, he seems to be breathing. Minutes turn into hours and I reach for my shotgun and place it in my mouth.
Boring as hell opening, but we do see this awesome Falcon Ranchero (and you thought the crossover was a modern innovation).
Finally, after like 10 (maybe 847) minutes, we get on with the plot. We meet an old scientist named Zinthrop who has been hired by the bee farmer to study the "royal jelly" of the queen bees (it's the tastiest!). There's virtually zero backstory to this old man, but we can guess from his age, his crisp Hanoverian accent, and his ruinous meddling with Mother Nature, that he's a former Nazi scientist who escaped Germany in 1945 and is now continuing his unorthodox research here in the sticks of rural America. I just made all that up. I do wonder, however, why he's working in an old wood shed when he's supposedly such a smartyhead.
Zinthrop (Ernst Borgnine-esque, no?).
The bee owner rides in and fires Zinthrop for showing no progress in bee jelly growing and for racking up a thousand dollar miscellaneous expense fund (crikey!). Zinthrop tries to save his job (and his one-room shack) by showing the man what he's been up to. It seems he's isolated an enzyme from wasp queen royal jelly that can be used to reverse the ageing process! He even presents "proof" in the form of a puppy that he says was once an adult dog. The bee owner fires him anyway (and takes away his shed), in one of the dumbest business opportunity failures of all time.
"It says here you ordered fifty canned hams and a box of His Majesty's Reserves! You're fired!"
Zinthrop packs up his wasps and his enzyme and takes it to...a cosmetics company? Huh? Clearly, an anti-ageing drug rates as humanity's single most important invention of all time. This beats everything, gunpowder, navigation, the atom, TiVo, the inclined plane, the wheel, the potato chip, internal combustion, the zero digit, the Wonderbra, crop irrigation, literally everything. Not since we learned to control fire on the African veld has something come along that could change the entire course of the human race like Doctor Z's Miracle Wasp Enzyme Beauty Cream and Skin Tonic.
Seriously, it's better than the Wonderbra (I can't believe I just said that).
Off to Manhattan, to the cosmetics empire Starling Enterprises, were we meet scion Janice Starling, a one-time beauty queen now fading with old age (she's nearly 40, gasp!). Janice is played by 32-year old Susan Cabot, a fairly pretty woman who was dating director Roger Corman at the time, which would explain why she agreed to appear in this smoking turkey of a movie. She also was banging an Arab head of state at the same time (plus Marlon Goddamn Brando!).
Her sales are down, her boobs are sagging, and she's run out of snake oil. At this low point in her company's profit margins, Zinthrop comes to see Janice with his amazing wasp enzyme, which he claims can reverse the ageing process. He takes her into a room where he has a demonstration set up. He injects a pair of old fluffy guinea pigs with the drug and within a minute they change into baby fluffy guinea pigs! No optical tricks, no sfx, just cut-aways to replace the old guinea pig with the baby, old school filmmaking at its finest. He also does the same trick with a cat, turning an adult tabby into a kitten in a (relatively) blink of an eye. As the owner of several old cranky cats, I'd sell my own mother for a dose of that stuff!
Call PETA! I think it actually turns into a white rat, which is not right.
He says that this would make great cosmetics, helping women look younger and more beautiful. While Janice should really see this as the most important thing ever, she only sees dollar signs. She offers unlimited money and carte blanche to do what he wants and sets him up a lab right there in the corporate offices. It has lots of glass jars and beakers and test tubes full of colored liquids, but this just doesn't seem like the type of lab that's properly set up for such cutting-edge biotech research, nor does the dottering old Zinthrop seem like he could comprehend the immense variances in the human genome, or even find two matching socks in a drawer without help. But then again, this is just a movie, and we don't quibble with the bad genetic science in Gattica or Blade Runner or even Jurassic Park, do we? [Editor Pam: While he's at it, why doesn't he inject himself? He's pretty old, surely he'd want to be young again. I'd be suspicious if I were Janice, but I suppose all she can think about is her looks.]
The "lab" (curious about that framed degree back there, University of NutJob State, perhaps?).
Zinthrop is working to create a version for human use, which is measurably more difficult to engineer than one for cats, apparently. Well, a lot more difficult, really, as we only share about 70% of our DNA with cats, which is a ton when it comes to genetics. And since Zinthrop's medical equipment consists of a refrigerator and a set of Bunsen burners, it might take him a while to develop a workable enzyme that won't give a human test subject hairballs and an insatiable love of milk jug rings and shoe laces.
By the way, if you cross cat DNA with human DNA, you get a Furry, and I'm totally ok with this.
Meanwhile, Janice's staff is curious about this leering old man and his mysterious lab, especially since Janice has been so tight-lipped about everything. Let's meet some of her employees, shall we? First there's Bill, played by Anthony Eisley (from Journey to the Center of Time), a square-jawed Bryll-creamed manly man who seems to be in charge of advertising or something.
Bill's banging Mary, Janice's personal secretary, and one of the few humans on the planet who can stand the reek of unfiltered Kents and Aqua Velva without gagging. Mary is a fairly attractive big-boned brunette played by Barboura Morris (who was excellent in Corman's Atlas), handicapped here by an atrocious haircut weighed down by several gallons of gel.
This entire movie shows us a refreshing slice of corporate life in the late 1950s, with Mad Men-style prim fashions and old timey sexual sensibilities. Secretaries file their nails at their desks and men smoke pipes and flirt openly on company time, and there's not a Blackberry or a Bluetooth headset to be seen (in fact, just old school typewriters and inkwells). There are a few really top shelf scenes here in this office where Corman shows his directing ability (though he's helped by some surprisingly crisp dialogue). I've watched a lot of Corman movies and while they are indeed crappy in a lot of ways, in almost every case you can find moments of real depth and beauty.
A couple of lovely secretaries lounge about sipping club soda and taking personal calls on the clock.
Anyway, Bill and Mary both think Zinthrop is a quack and a con man, perhaps even a dangerous one, preying on Janice's narcissistic need to be the prettiest woman in the room at all times. Mary does some snooping, poking through her boss's desk after hours one night. How quaint! No sneaky flash drive pilfering, no email account hacking, no cellphone wire taps, just a woman in an a-line skirt rifling through a desk drawer and swiping a hand-written note.
That's so going to get her fired.
Back in the lab, Zinthrop has finally developed an enzyme formula that's ready for human testing. The problem is he has no human subject, due to the fact that he's unlicensed and working outside the bounds of the scientific community. Janice promptly volunteers (!), showing either an admirable level of bravery or a Mathilde-like vanity (or blind stupidity, does she really want to inject something into her body that makes cats into kittens?). She gets injections once a week, but it's slow progress. After a few weeks it seems she has regained five years but it's hard to tell.
Janice getting injected.
Janice is an impatient woman (in all aspects of her life) and she wants results faster that what Zinthrop's measured incremental trials are giving her. So she sneaks into his lab at night and injects herself with a double-dose! Did I mention that this enzyme turns big cats into tiny kittens? Has she really thought this through, does she really think it's safe to take a drug that violates the Law of Conservation of Matter (think about it...). On an unrelated note, the library music for this scene is suitably spooky. In fact, the score for nearly every scene is well-chosen, kudos to the production staff on this.
She hooks it with the practiced precision of a true speedball artist.
The affects are rapid and dramatic as within days Janice looks 22 again (!). Her skin is flawless, her boobs are perky, and she's super overjoyed to have her all-important looks back again. She twirls around the office in her faux-Burberry coat and pearls, just daring the astonished typist girls not to be jealous. The men, of course, see her in a "new light" and even happily-boinking Bill can't help but notice Janice's sudden new sexiness. And, yes, it's a poke at our image-obsessed culture, even back in the '50s, but that's never ever going to change so we might as well just get over it and go back to watching E! News and making fun of Kim Kardashian's ass.
Janice is young again.
But all is not well. Zinthrop comes into the lab one day to find that the cat that he's been using as a test subject has escaped its cage and has become a slobbering ravenous killer! Watch the old actor wrestle unconvincingly with the cat as it jumps at his face, in some shots a plush stuffed animal and in others a live (if sedated) kitty that he gingerly holds against his head and squirms around. Seriously, this is something I could film myself with one of my cats (probably Milo, he's the calmest). [Editor Pam: I'd prefer not to try scrubbing my face with my cat. She's a nice cat, but she has no sense of humor.] Zinthrop eventually strangles the cat (off-screen).
Dejected, Zinthrop leaves the lab without telling anyone and wanders out onto the street in a daze (he's upset because it's clear now that his brilliant plan has failed). He gets smacked by a car and is knocked out (off-screen, seriously, did you think a stuntman was in the budget?). Janice is distraught when she realizes he's gone, as she's seriously jonesing for some more injections. She calls the cops but they don't have much to go on as Zinthrop left no phone or address or anything. In searching for some info, Janice discovers that her secretary Mary stole a letter from her desk. Oddly, this never comes up again.
Janice talks to the cops (is that Tor Johnson's twin brother?).
We now have a pointless scene where a police car drives around Manhattan, Solaris-like, aimlessly looking for the missing Zinthrop. It's been said that Corman realized at the end of editing that his finished film was way too short to be marketable and so he tacked on this bit to pad out the running time. It looks like it. They eventually find Zinthrop at Central Emergency as a John Doe from a hit and run. He has a head injury with brain damage and is in a coma. Janice pays for the best brain surgeon in the country to serve him. A week passes without good news, however, and Janice is resigned to the fact that she has only what stocks of the enzyme that were already made (which she's still pumping into her veins like a skidrow junkie).
Cruising the mean streets of NYC (which, with the palm trees and girls in halter tops, looks suspiciously like Southern California).
Meanwhile, a staffer named Arthur has also been snooping (he's in league with Bill and Mary) and gets ahold of a notebook full of what I assume is Zinthrop's lab notes. He says that he could figure it out if he could only run a "qualitative analysis" (ok). He goes to the lab at night, jimmies open the door and starts to monkey around with some beakers (is he trying to replicate Zinthrop's experiments or just trying to make some salsa?).
Arthur (or maybe Dean Martin, hard to tell).
Arthur's time on this Earth is up as he's jumped by Janice the mutant wasp, who was hiding in the lab. Finally! 52 minutes into a 73 minute long film we finally get a shot of our titular Wasp Woman. She's got wasp arms! And she's got the head of a wasp! Jesus fucking Christ, what is that!?! Meh, I've seen better, even at such an early date (The Fly from the previous year comes to mind, or even Chaney's The Wolf Man if seen in the right light). Oh, and just an observation, but every single piece of DVD cover artwork I can find shows Janice with the body of a wasp and her own face, which is completely opposite of what's in the movie (not for nothing, but that annoys me).
Wasp Woman mask! Hard to see here, but in this scene you can really tell that the "wasp arms" are just gloves and the "wasp face" is just a mask that barely goes down to the jaw line, this is Corman at his best.
Janice/Wasp is for some reason endowed with super-strength and is able to knock down Arthur (who has ten inches and a hundred plus pounds on her) and rip his throat out with her teeth! Throughout the entire attack there's the sound of buzzing wasps foleyed into the soundtrack, that's a cute touch, maybe the most inventive bit in the movie (sadly). And I guess I don't need to explain that the wasp enzyme overdoses have turned Janice into a wasp queen, right?
Killing Arthur, arms all akimbo (see the gloves?).
She then takes another injection and reverts to her youthful, beautiful self (off-screen). She then rather coldly leaves the lab and goes about her daily life (presumably hiding Arthur's body somewhere? And where is all the blood?). At the next morning's staff meeting, little mention is made of Arthur being gone (popular guy!). Janice is more interested in the hip marketing plan for her new cosmetics line, tagged "Return to Youth". Apparently, and this makes little sense, Janice is going to go ahead with her wasp enzyme cosmetics line, despite the harmless little side effect that it turns people into fucking monsters! And she knows this, it's happening to her, and she still wants to release the product on the unsuspecting population. What does this say about her? About the lazy scriptwriters? About the lack of an FDA approval process? About me for worrying so much about this movie?
She's a cold one.
Janice is not well, even when injected she's falling apart, nervous, sweaty, twitchy and suffering from extreme headaches. Everyone is concerned but Janice only needs her daily juice to make her feel better. When she's hooked, she's fine, when she's dry, she's a wasp. Janice also brings Zinthrop (now out of the coma but wheelchair-bound and semi-lucid) to her offices and sets him up with a room and an on-call nurse. She wants her dealer close.
Zinthrop and his nurse (who if she ditched the librarian beehive, GI-issue glasses, and my grandma's earrings would be kinda cute).