The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we look at a low-budget horror sci-fi film with a bizarre real-life counterpart, The Wasp Woman.
Often directed at a teenage audience, the movies of Roger Corman are usually campy, with notably amusing dialogue and shock-tactic scares tailored for audiences of the 1950s. The scares might not hold up, but the movies usually do—and among them, The Wasp Woman is particularly delightful.
After halfheartedly beginning and then abandoning careers in the Navy and at U.S. Electrical Motors, Corman quit his career as an engineer and went on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. He has the somewhat unique distinction of being considered a pioneer of trash cinema, an independent filmmaker, and a true auteur. He is often known for turning a significant profit via his devoutly low-budget approach to filmmaking, and for beginning the careers of many dozens of people still working in Hollywood today, including celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Diane Ladd. By the time he directed The Wasp Woman, Corman had already helmed over two dozen other films.
As usual, there's a few things you're going to have to throw right out the window if you're going to enjoy this movie. It's low-budget, it's predictable, and, even by the somewhat loose definition of '50s science fiction, there are lots of holes in the plot, and before watching this movie, it's important you know that the people behind the scenes had absolutely no idea what the difference is between bees and wasps. The main theme of this story is about a scientist who experiments with royal jelly—which is a thing that bees produce but wasps do not. Even the opening credits are rolled over what are almost definitely bees.
The science might not improve, but the movie does. It has a slow beginning in which we are introduced to Dr. Eric Zinthrop, the scientist unduly obsessed with harvesting wasps for the anti-aging effects they seem to have for the purposes of the film. Zinthrop is fired in the opening sequence for wasting money on his weird wasp studies, and the movie cuts to a board meeting in the offices of Starlin Enterprises. Founder Janice Starlin is concerned about a slump in cosmetic sales, and professional mansplainer Bill Lane steps in to inform her that he believes it's because she's stepping out of the spotlight due to her age. In fear that the successful industry she built is doomed to failure, she funds Zinthrop's anti-aging research as a last act of desperation. She is injected with Zinthrop's serum after a disturbingly brief experimentation period on a single cat. Although she immediately appears significantly younger, she begins breaking into the laboratory at night to inject herself with more of the serum than advised.
Before Zinthrop can warn everyone of the dangers of the serum, however, he is randomly struck by a car in the street and hospitalized. Starlin pays for his hospital stay, but harasses him about the serum and continues dosing herself with it. She begins to fall apart at work, and then starts killing people at random in fits of sudden rage. During the murders, she appears to take on a wasp-like appearance, with an admittedly cheaply-made mask and a couple of pipe-cleaner antennae popping out at the front. Ultimately, her crimes are discovered by employee Lane and his long-suffering girlfriend, and the Wasp Woman meets her cruel fate with about 30 seconds of screen time to spare.
The script is, of course, nearly identical to another well-known horror film of the time, The Fly. No one involved seemed inclined to defend or deny the obvious plagiarism, but The Wasp Woman does occasionally improve upon the theme. While science fiction tropes like “the mad scientist” aren't exactly inventive, the social commentary here often is. In the '50s, it was rare to see a female character appear in genre as anything but a classic damsel in distress. While there is one of those in this film too, she receives much less focus than the other female characters, including two seemingly incidental office workers who appear mostly just to complain about their husbands.
Ultimately, the best thing about The Wasp Woman might be its surprising sympathy toward Janice. Not only does she command the narrative more than was typical in sci-fi movies of this time, it's easy to understand where she's coming from. As a driven, unmarried, self-made woman in the oppressive '50s, she fears losing the thing that she's built her life around, and you can see why. Even though this movie is about a woman who de-ages and transforms into a wasp-human hybrid, it's surprisingly realistic, both in its portrayal of a sympathetic villain and in its understanding of how the beauty industry affects and pressures people.
The performances are likewise compelling, and, despite the obvious camp of the script, the actors give it their all. The movie benefits from the seriousness and professionalism of the actors, who had every right to dial it in and didn't. The film also features a rare brief cameo by Corman himself, in the form of an unnamed doctor treating the injured Zinthrop.
Additionally, one of the most important parts of The Wasp Woman's legacy is its bizarre real-life conclusion. In the mid-'80s, Susan Cabot, the actor who portrayed Janice Starlin, was found murdered in her home. The police discovered a house that had been in disrepair for years, with piles of trash and rotting food everywhere. Her son Timothy Roman claimed to have encountered a ninja warrior in his kitchen who he believed to have committed the murder, which was rapidly disproven. Police discovered that Timothy had lived with his mother his entire life, and that they shared a disturbingly close relationship. It turned out that Timothy had been born with dwarfism, and that doctors had been treating him with growth hormones harvested from cadavers for years, leading him to develop symptoms of mad cow disease. In a shocking parallel to Cabot's character in The Wasp Woman, Timothy had snapped and murdered his mother due to side effects from the drugs.
You don't have to know the real life story of Cabot to watch The Wasp Woman, but it does add a surreal edge to the experience. Despite her appearance in several other B-movies and a few stage productions, The Wasp Woman remains Cabot's most remembered role in her long and difficult life.