Monday, August 11, 2014

What's the Buzz?

Every now and then, I remember to check out what Turner Classic Movies (better known as TCM) has airing at times when I’m not DVR’ing Jeopardy! or Step Up 3D for the nineteenth time. On one such occasion, I saw the intriguing title The Wasp Woman, written and directed by cult cinema’s official godfather, Roger Corman.   

Quick Plot: Janice Starlin is the founder and spokeswoman for a major cosmetics company that has hit a rough patch. To her investors, the cause is obvious: as the face of the brand, Janice’s fortysomething wrinkles are driving down sales. 

It’s a blow to her ego, but Janice doesn’t take such corporate insult lying down. When a controversial scientist named Eric Zinthrop walks in with a demonstration on the anti-aging effects of wasp jelly, Janice has volunteered herself to be its guinea pig before you can say Avon calling. 

As one might expect from any sci-fi monster movie made in 1959, said wasp jelly doesn’t quite succeed without a few side effects. In an age well before softly lit television commercials featuring happy people bike riding while a pleasant-voiced narrator speed talks through diarrheaconstipationimpotencenumbnesserectionslastinglongerthaneighthoursdrymouthinvoluntarybladderactiondepressionlossofappetiteweightgainandinsomecasesdeath, Janice has no one to blame but her own impatience. Sure, the initial facelift she gets from her first trial helps to instantly gain the confidence back from her board, but then Janice rushes the process before Zinthrop has the chance to warn her that, well, she might just turn into a wasp woman, she does indeed, turn into, a wasp woman.

If Masque of Red Death taught me one thing, it’s that Roger Corman is indeed capable of making an actual good movie. He just typically chose not to because such a goal costs valuable time and money.

Running barely an hour, The Wasp Woman feels like something in between a genuine attempt at filmmaking and a quick cash-in on The Fly. As Janice, Susan Cabot gives a strong, dedicated performance, taking the material perfectly seriously and in the process, creating a real person and unconventional villain. The basic theme of a woman who built a successful career only to have it questioned when her looks start to fade is extremely relevant half a century later, and Corman handles the concept with surprising restraint. For a nice stretch, I was predicting The Wasp Woman to reveal itself a hidden gem of the 1950s.

Then the movie ended.

I mean it: the clock struck one hour and the credits rolled. I guess Corman had another movie to make.

The shame of it is that The Wasp Woman had so much promise. Sure, the actual monster effects vary between being almost unsettling and somewhat laughable, but the underlying politics are prime material. Added to it is a minor subplot involving some of the male employees attempting to undermine Janice, something that could have easily lent itself to some interesting final showdowns. Instead, The Wasp Woman rushes to its conclusion, leaving plenty of potential in its nest.

High Points
Cabot really does give it her all, even when wearing a heavy wasp’s head and big ol’ antenna 

Low Points
Aforementioned race-to-the-finish-line ending

Lessons Learned
Friends don’t let their brilliant, daring, and one-of-a-kind scientists not keeping great records of their illegal research drive irresponsibly

‘Women’ is the excuse every man uses when he can’t find an answer

Just because side effects haven’t been joked about yet doesn’t mean they aren’t a serious danger

For a Corman joint, The Wasp Woman is more than decent. I was disappointed because I wanted more, which is generally a good sign for a film. No, this is no The Thing or Them!, but as a cheap '50s monster movie, the film makes for a fully watchable 60 minutes.


  1. The terribly short running time might be an easier pill to swallow if you imagine that Corman ran off from the shoot to go make Little Shop of Horrors!

    "If Masque of Red Death taught me one thing, it’s that Roger Corman is indeed capable of making an actual good movie. He just typically chose not to because such a goal costs valuable time and money."
    Funniest thing I've read in a while, Emily!

  2. Fair enough. And without Corman's Little Shop, we'd never have the 1986 Little Shop, so all is forgiven!

    1. By the way, which ending do you prefer to the '86 Little Shop? I like both, myself. I dig the original downbeat ending, but I ultimately prefer the normal one, as it's not depressing.

    2. Oh goodness, I could write an essay on this topic!

      First of all, Little Shop of Horrors was the first film I remember seeing in the movie theater. I was a wide-eyed four-year-old who left the theater with my Care Bears lamb figure and McDonald's Thumper toy (there'd been a rerelease of Bambi) cast as Audrey and Seymour on the car ride home.

      I adore that movie.

      When they released the special edition, I actually got to go see it on the big screen in one of those "sometimes it really is great to live in NYC" events where Frank Oz, Alan Menken, and Ellen Greene were in attendance and did a Q&A and musical performance (well, not Frank Oz). I sobbed like a baby.

      HOWEVER, I also prefer the happy ending. Part of it is that it's hard to see a different ending to a film that's meant so much to you for so long, but more importantly, I really think the film version is just too sweet to end on such a downer. I'm glad it got a release because the artwork is pretty neat, but I do not want to live in a world where THAT Audrey and Seymour die.

      Frank Oz explained it very well: when they showed the film in its original edit to test audiences, the feedback was terrible. The audience loved the first hour and was applauding after every song, but left the screening room giving it a failing grade. Oz made a great point: in the stage version (where everyone also dies), the actors come back on stage two minutes later for their curtain call. You don't get that in a movie. When a character dies, that character is dead forever. Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene were just far too lovable to die onscreen. It's the rare case where the test audience and producers or studio was actually far wiser than the director.

    3. Thanks for the comprehensive answer, Emily!

      Definitely a much better handled ending compared to the original's downer, where Seymour climbs into the plant like a dumbass when trying to kill it.

  3. I liked this one thematically as well but wished there'd been more attacks by the WW plus some wire work with her flying around would have been nice. I do love that Bruno VeSota (the portly nightwatchman) is to Corman films what Kenny McCormick is to South Park episodes and he suffers yet another undignified end in this one.

    1. I never noticed the ill-fated McCormick. I'll keep my eye out for him next time!