A QUEEN OF BEAUTY..
A LUSTING QUEEN WASP..
The Wasp Woman (1960) is firmly cemented in Roger Corman country. A simple concept, filmed fast and cheap, with just enough exploitative elements to please the undiscerning drive-in crowd, it's one of his archetypal b-movies.
The basic premise is rather cliched. Someone desires youth and beautygenerally a woman, but by no means confined to the female gender (think oil paintings slowly aging away in the attic)and finds a way to avoid the aging process. Of course, there is always a price to the search (that usually becomes obsession) for eternal youth and it ends badly. Whether its those who fell victim to Countess Elizabeth Bathory1 or prey to the Wasp Woman, natural order must be kept and trying to cheat the ravages of time corrupts all it touches.
In the case of this film, the key is "royal jelly," a substance that is fed to the queen bee who significantly outlives her workers and mate(s). A certain researcher in the areaa Dr. Zinthrop (who looks sorta like a poor-man's Boris Karloff but without the acting chops)has found that the royal jelly of wasps is especially potent. He is hired by Janice Starlin, played by Susan Cabot,2 the ambitious head of her own cosmetics company. He has found that the royal jelly has "rejuvenation" properties and she wants to use it to put her company back on top (its sales had dropped some 14%). If the theory pans out, she will be the queen wasp of the cosmetics world, once again.
But there is another, more personal reason. She's getting old (well, only about 33 when the movie was made and looking rather nice, too). The company has even ceased using her once "glam girl" face in the advertising. How does the viewer know she's aging? She wears glasses, wrinkles and scrunches her face a lot and pulls her hair back a bit more. Gotta love Corman. Why use makeup when you can fake it?
Does the jelly work? Sure does. The good doctor makes cats turn into kittens and (inexplicablyno doubt Corman cutting corners and figuring the audience wouldn't catch on) de-ages a guinea pig into a mouse. Some of her employees are concerned, thinking the doctor a "quack," a "real weirdy," and a "crackpot." Starlin is treated with injections. There is a noticeable difference. No glasses, more smiles, smoother appearing skin (probably some actual makeup)voila! Youth. But it works too slowly. She wants larger doses of these royal jelly wasp enzymes. Late one night, Starlin sneaks into the lab and injects herself. It is the beginning of her end.
It isn't long before consequences to the treatment become apparent, foreshadowed by conversation among her concerned employees: "quacks were treating people with monkey glands," which had worked until the "deterioration set in." Shortly later, the cat from the lab attacks the doctor. Starlin seems fatigued and has headaches. She becomes distracted at work. Meanwhile, one of the employees enters the lab after-hours to find out more about the doctor. He dies, his throat bitten, and a night watchman goes missing.
The doctor sees her transform and kill another victim. He realizes that "Miss Starlin is not a human being any longer. The enzymes have changed her." The employees confront her in the lab and a climax takes place involving carbolic acid and a broken window. The Wasp Woman and her unnatural corruption and deterioration are brought to an end. And so is the movie.
Corman's technique is evident all over the movie. His reputation for speed, efficiency, and economy (in both senses of the term) is in evidence. The sets all look new, flat and freshly painted. Decorations adorn some of the walls and sets almost randomly. The lab has a barometer on the wall (hanging crookedly) and the 'wasp room' is full of plants. One might think that they are for the wasps to get their nourishment. Problem is none are flowering plants. Most look like ferns. Renown for the many camera setups he would go through in a day of shooting, there are many cuts and quite a few shots at off-center anglessome of them probably due to the speed in which each was filmed and a certain aesthetic that was non-mainstream. Some of the medium shots are almost too close for the attempted framing, close-ups are done a bit too close and more to the side or from lower than typical. It is clearly not a polished "Hollywood" piece but also has an energy and vitality that many contemporary b-movies lacked. And it works.
Shots, especially during the transformations and attacks, move along pow pow pow. One can imagine him getting the shot and then, quickly, 'lets do the next one over here.' Maybe improvising where the next setup will be. Cameras, lighting and crew move in position and the next take is done, little time for rehearsing, hardly any reshooting. Similarly, The editing moves along quickly and speeds up during the same scenesnicely dovetailing with the increased tempo and rhythm of the jazzy score which is largely percussive and syncopated.
The last item also shows how he was aware of the audience: the youth market which exploitation films necessarily target. There are other "youthful" touches, like the attention paid to the various secretaries. Both in word use (speaking like young women, full of slang and unpolished dialogue) and conversation. In one scene there is a short conversation about boyfriends and stuff. Something that doesn't really add anything to the plot (which moves along briskly without much adornment or development beyond necessity) but creates a sense of realness for the young women in the office.
The worst part of it all is the "costume" for the titular insect woman (maybe why she doesn't make an appearance until 56 minutes into the 73 minute movie). It's like a bad Halloween costume bought at the last minute after all the good ones are taken. All black grease paint, faux fur, bug eyes, and the appropriate gloves. Corman wisely films those scenes in darkened rooms. There are some generous drips and glops of blood on the victims and they probably were a bit shocking for the time.
Socially, the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They're both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way, toostrictly a one-sided romance.
Time for science!
There are a lot of myths about "royal jelly" and they include the nonsense about retarding aging, rejuvenation, and as is common with similar products, a multitude of promises concerning increased stamina, treatment of certain diseases and conditions, and various nutritional benefits. In fact, there is a whole "industry" of bee-related products, including "bee pollen" (which is simply plant pollen that has stuck to the bee's legs), and propolis (the substance, often called "bee glue") used to maintain the structure of the hive). Almost none of the claims have been born out with scientific study and the few that are have been greatly exaggeratedfor example it is true that certain components of both "bee" pollen and royal jelly have antibiotic aspects, they are hardly curative and do not stop the potential for growth of possible disease-causing organisms.
Another potentially serious problem is that all can cause allergic reactions. People who have ingested the pollen and jelly have suffered "asthma, hives, and anaphylactic shock" as well as "Neurologic and gastrointestinal reactions." Though not common, it is not something to be taken lightly and there have been a few cases that have resulted in fatality (a condition that definitely contradicts claims of longevity).
Royal jelly is a substance that is secreted from glands in the "nurse bees" that tend the larvae. It is fed to the larvae and is the only "food" served the queen. The "idea" is, since the queen lives substantially longer than the other bees, the jelly must have remarkable powers affecting the aging process (the queen is also quite a bit larger but there seem to be no claims related to that). That this is utter pseudoscience does nothing to stop the moneymaking endeavor by the companies promoting these products. And being in the category of "supplement," they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration unless specific medical claims are made and no disclaimer used: "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
Three paragraphs in and no mention of wasps? Why? Because they don't make royal jelly. It's a bee thing. There is a sweet secretion that the larvae give off that workers will consume but it is nothing like the purported jelly. Wasps eat a variety of insects and insect parts, as well as protein from other sources (human food, dead animals). They also eat sweet things like nectar, honeydew (a waste product excreted by scale insects or aphids) and fruitand of course soda pop, picnickers. Though the idea that a wasp, being bigger than a bee, would have especially potent jelly, works for the movie, it has no basis in reality. It is true that the queen is the only wasp that survives the winter, reading more into that is pointless. And despite the suggestion in the above quote that they kill their mates like black widow spiders, this is also not the case. After males are hatched and mature they leave the nest and fly around looking for females to mate with. They die when it gets cold like all the other wasps. Other wasps except...The Wasp Woman!
Note: screenwriter Leo Gordon also showed his vast lack of scientific knowledge in the Corman-produced Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Way to go, Leo!
Additional note: the story is credited to a Kinta Zertuche. It is her only writing-related credit (unless you count Corman's 1960 Ski troop Attack on which she served as "script supervisor"). Incestuously, she was the production secretary on Attack of the Giant Leeches.
In 1995, there was a television remake of the film by exploitation/schlock director Jim Wynorski. Corman executive produced. The movie title, if not the movie likely inspired the Misfits song "Queen Wasp," though aside from the line about her being a "vampire girl" (Starlin appears to suck blood from her victims), there is no real resemblance.
So, is The Wasp Woman any good? Good question. And dependent on one's tolerance for this sort of thing. It won't turn back the clock and made one young again. But, perhaps, one can recall the Saturday matinees of one's youth from the days before infomercials and syndicated sitcoms pushed out old movies. Just don't set the expectation bar too high.
1It was too hard to resist the reference. In actuality, research that was done into the documents concerning the accusations against Bathory found zero references to bathing in blood and the whole story about needing it (specifically from virgins"wirgins" if you're Udo Kier) to maintain youth and beauty. That does not change the fairly substantiated fact that she was one of the worst serial killers of all time, humiliating, torturing, and murdering hundreds of women personally or by proxy. (Info courtesy of www.crimelibrary.com)
2After her role in the film, Cabot never worked in the movies again. She spent her time working on acting and singing in theater. Her son Timothy, born in 1964, was affected with dwarfism and spent much of his life taking growth hormone. In her later years, Cabot reportedly became mentally unstable and paranoid (it is thought that this might be partly due to her taking her son's growth hormone). In 1986, at age 59, her son, who claimed he had been abused for years, beat her to death with a weight lifting bar.
(Source: DVD double feature with Roger Corman's 1960 Attack of the Giant Leeches, facts and dates checked at the imdb.com, info on Cabot and wasps culled from various websites of particular help was www.quackwatch.com; opening quotation from the movie trailer provided by the DVD, the odd ellipses were in the original titles)