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The Wasp Woman
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE WASP WOMAN (1959)

Starring: Susan Cabot, Fred Eisley, Barboura Morris, Michael Mark, William Roerick

Written By: Leo Gordon, Kinta Zertuche (story) Directed By: Roger Corman

The Short Version

This is 1950s drive-in fare; you know what you’re getting into beforehand.

The premise is great, the script is too thin, and the production’s even thinner.

Susan Cabot puts in a much better performance than the microscopic budget paid for.

You watch The Wasp Woman because you love the genre; if these flicks are your thing, you’ll have fun.

For more casual audiences, there are other screens at the drive-in you’ll want to see first.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PACKAGED SWISS SINGLES.

Patterned after real cheese!  Only it’s got lots of holes in it, and it’s missing most of its flavor!


Pairs Well With...

LEINENKUGEL'S HONEY WEISS.

Yeah, I know; bees make honey, not wasps.  Work with me here.  Besides, it’s good beer.

“Men.  Every time you’re stuck for an answer, you come up with ‘women’.”


Though it is often generously remembered by old school B movie fans, one still has to be honest: The Wasp Woman is by no means Roger Corman’s best movie.  It’s really not even a good one, though the sad part about that is that it could have been.

Of course, that’s the thing about fandom: if you love a genre, something doesn’t actually have to be good to be fun.  With that in mind, if you’re a fan of 1950s drive-in style B movies, then there’s just enough fun in The Wasp Woman to make it worth your while.  For more casual moviegoers, well…

Our story begins with an eccentric researcher named Zinthrop (Michael Mark, House of Frankenstein).  His employer is paying him to work with royal jelly from honeybees, but Zinthrop believes that he has instead found the secret to eternal youth thanks to an extract made from the enzymes of wasps.  Even though he is able to demonstrate real results from his experiments, his employers are not impressed, and he is “let go” for “not being a team player.”  (Those are the real words from the movie.  Yes, it was made in 1959 and not last week.)

Surely, though, another company would be interested, like, say, the cosmetics firm run by Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot, War of the Satellites).  After eighteen years of success, the profits at her company have started to slip, and word is that it’s because Starlin herself isn’t modeling the cosmetics anymore because she’s getting “too old” to be a cover girl.  Seems like a miracle formula that can reverse the aging process is exactly what Starlin is looking for.

Of course, Zinthrop hasn’t had the chance to test his extract on humans yet, but Starlin doesn’t feel that she has time to wait, and demands to be his first human test subject herself.  Side effects?  What side effects? Take a guess...

Roger Corman is justifiably known as the ultimate master of doing more with less when it comes to filmmaking.  Unfortunately, when it came to The Wasp Woman, even Corman didn’t have enough.

To say that The Wasp Woman is thin is an understatement.  An obvious micro budget response to the incredible success of The Fly the year before, The Wasp Woman trades the formulaic catalyst of “man wants to create a new toy (for the good of science)” for “woman’s vanity (and business need) demands eternal youth” and swaps a common insect for an inherently scarier one.  Accepting suspension of disbelief as a given, whether the premise is derivative or no, it’s a pretty good one with lots of potential.  Modern update on the Fountain of Youth, cosmetics turn against humanity… hey, sounds like fun!

Unfortunately, the creative juices seem to have stopped flowing once the premise was worked out.  Roger Corman may have been famous for having writers who could whip out a screenplay in two days, but whatever length of time was spent on The Wasp Woman just wasn’t long enough.  Even at only 73 minutes of final runtime, the movie feels like it takes far longer thanks to being stuffed with obvious filler material, some of which actually recycles footage that’s already played.  Realistically, even allowing for character development, there’s only 45 minutes’ worth of actual movie here at most; maybe even less.  Everything else is pork.  (Just how many dozen times do we need to hear that Starlin’s employees don’t trust Zinthrop, anyway?  Even understanding that we’re also meant to figure out that they feel threatened, it’s still too much.)  Corman’s usually very good about keeping the audience engaged even when the action’s at a lull, but here, he’s way off his game, and more than once things get pretty boring if you’re not already watching with an eye toward giving the film a lampoon treatment and thus adding your own commentary track along the way.  (This is especially easy during the board meetings; just remember not to take the habit back to work with you afterward.  I’ll also leave it to you to try and figure out why Starlin doesn’t bother to fire employees she catches breaking into her office and stealing from her.)

Not only did The Wasp Woman apparently have no budget for a truly finished screenplay, it didn’t have much budget for a costume, either.  I’ve seen some pretty amazing takes on what this character could have looked like if there’d been any money available; unfortunately, what you actually get is a cheesy mask and a pair of mittens.  Seriously.  No one even bothers to hide the fact that you can still see Starlin’s bare neck and the chain she’s wearing, or her ankles, for that matter.  This costume doesn’t just look cheap; it looks like it came from the basement.  It’s rather, sad, really, because again, this premise deserves so much better.

I could go on about how initial lab tests meant to show how the extract works on animals turn an elderly guinea pig into a young rat, but I think you’ve got the hang of it now.

There is one plus side to The Wasp Woman, though, and that’s Susan Cabot, who delivers a much better performance than anyone on this budget was paying for.  While most the cast just goes through the motions, Cabot plays Janice Starlin with the complexity that the character was obviously supposed to have had if the script had ever been filled out.  She also does a marvelous job of switching off between the “unhappily middle aged Janice” and the “suddenly youthful and invigorated Janice.”  But it’s when she becomes what can easily be interpreted as “junkie Janice” that Cabot really pulls out the stops, displaying the twitchy desperation of an addict to marvelous effect even though such terms are never even hinted at.  Whatever she was paid for this movie, it wasn’t enough.

Michael Mark does a fair job as Zinthrop, but there’s not much in the way of range there.  As for everyone else?  Completely forgettable. 

Indeed, you’re more likely to remember the movie’s completely random music than you are anything about the supporting cast once a few hours have gone by.  You’re also more likely to remember that the production is so cheap that they couldn’t even be bothered to find a real elevator to film and just used what is obviously a sliding door leading off to a hallway instead .

Ah, well.  It’s still fun enough to fling popcorn and funny comments at if you’re a fan.  Just.

Bottom line, though it may be generously remembered by some genre fans, at the end of the day, The Wasp Woman really is one of Roger Corman’s weaker efforts.  It starts with an excellent premise, but it ends up being half baked and overly thin, with only Susan Cabot’s performance left to look upon as a bright spot.  If you dig the 1950s drive-in stuff, you’ll probably want to peek anyway, but for the rest of you, Corman’s done plenty better for you to watch instead.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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