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From the Vaults: 'The Wasp Woman' (1960*)

March 22, 2010 |  2:01 am
Note: Larry is posting items from 1920 and 1960 this year, and I will be watching movies from those years and writing about them, alternating weeks. This week is 1960's turn.

wasp_woman_poster And I owe you people something of an apology, because I have another Roger Corman movie this week. It was my stupid mistake --  I got all excited to watch "The Wasp Woman" because I've had a postcard of the movie poster for years and have long cherished it. (That's a good reason to watch a movie, right? Seriously, look at that thing. It is so great.)

I had no idea it was a Corman joint, although if I had thought about it or Googled it, or looked at the small print which is very small on a postcard, I could probably have figured it out. Still, I'm out of time to find something else, and besides, he won an honorary Oscar the other week, so here we are. Next time I'll have something more respectable, or at least directed by someone else, I promise.

”The Wasp Woman” is an interesting time capsule of a tale. Cosmetics executive Jan Starlin (Susan Cabot) is told by her advertising department that her cosmetics are not selling well because she's just getting too old. So Jan poses the logical question: “Supposing a more powerful form of royal jelly could be obtained – from the queen wasp, for example -- would you suppose that might have some rejuvenating effect on a human being?” Turns out Jan has already hired an eccentric scientist (Michael Mark) to develop just such a royal jelly. The effects are not what she expects!

It's interesting to see what the script does with such a ragingly sexist premise. Jan's male employees all decide there's something hinky going on and start conspiring against her, even getting her female secretary (Barboura Morris) to spy on her. (There is a wonderful montage splicing footage of frowning employees with buzzing bees; there are no actual wasps in this movie that I could see, although it is explained that the scientist is also an expert on bees.) The men clearly have no faith in their female boss, despite the prior success of her company. That all changes when she shows up one day looking younger! Now it's the female secretaries who are resentful of Jan's newfound beauty. But then she's plagued by fearful headaches, and starts eating people, and the men are eventually proven correct.

Yeah, eating people. I had just decided, “Well, the poster for this movie is extremely misleading, as I might have expected,” and suddenly out came the rubber mask and pipe-cleaner antennae! A buzzing sound effect is meant to persuade you that she's got wings, I suppose. With this development, what's essentially an office drama gets a good bit more exciting.

Jan's onscreen carnage is limited to, oddly, administering neck bites, which seemed pretty random until I started thinking about Dracula's Daughter, and there are a few parallels. Both are outsiders, independent women in a masculine society, and each is engaged in her own powerful internal struggle – Jan's with aging, Countess Zaleska with, well, vampirism. Both engage a professional man's help, only to fail; and both go around in severe black outfits with their black hair worn up. (Not much of a lesbian vibe in this movie, though; Jan's attempts to act friendly to her secretary are halfhearted at best. The primary romance is between said secretary and one of the ad execs (Anthony Eisley). How unethical!)

Jan's undoubtedly the heroine, but like in Little Shop, the script has a zippy ensemble feel to it. I really enjoyed the bit characters, like the office delivery guys who stop to harass a female staffer (who responds with “How'd ya like to have this phone wrapped around your ear?”), and the night watchman who complains after a homicidal wasp attack knocks out the power. Corman's dialogue is just fun. To be honest, most of the movie is very static and the pacing has long gaps, but he gets such commitment out of his actors. You're just hanging out with these people for 70 minutes and they're just fun to be around.

But the monster attacks do lead to some pretty fabulous lines, like “The wasp enzymes! The extracts you were experimenting with before the accident! Try to think!” and “Oh, you fool, you fool! Miss Starlin will kill her and rip her body to shreds!” 

Oh, I am so excited to be the Wasp Woman for Halloween this year. Off to buy pipe cleaners...

In two weeks, Ingmar Bergman. No, really.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

(*It turns out that this movie was actually made in 1959, although it didn't show in L.A. until 1960. I guess I will just stop trying to be a stickler about this!)