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The Wasp Woman

by Glenn Erickson Jan 12, 2019

Roger and Gene Corman’s first ‘The Filmgroup’ production is a slick little programmer that belies its drive-in monster movie heritage: the trim tale is no minimalist effort, but a well-developed drama sourced in the twin drives to succeed and stay young. This deluxe edition contains both the Theatrical and TV versions, plus a Tom Weaver commentary that tells the incredible true-crime tale of Corman’s impressive leading lady Susan Cabot.


The Wasp Woman
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1959 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 63 min. / Street Date October 30, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Michael Mark, Lynn Cartwright, Frank Gerstle, Bruno VeSota, Roy Gordon, Carolyn Hughes, Frank Wolff, Philip Barry, Gene Corman, Roger Corman, Lani Mars (Kinta Zertuche).
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Film Editor: Carlo Lodato
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Original Music: Fred Katz
Written by Leo Gordon, Kinta Zertuche
Produced and Directed by
Roger Corman

 

Roger Corman is much more than an exploitation specialist. He pioneered tricky independent filmmaking ploys to survive and prosper in the majors-dominated marketplace of the 1950s. Producing mainly for/with American-International and Allied Artists, Corman tried numerous times to slip non-Guild productions through the system. Finally in late 1958 he and his agent brother Gene founded The Filmgroup to produce and distribute their own modest but commercially savvy films. Roger got three or four pictures out the gate, and distributed some other small productions, before Hollywood slammed the door on maverick producers working on the fly. Starting January 1 1960, the Guilds required full accounting on all Director’s Guild signatory productions, including the prompt payment of residuals. Corman’s response was to run away. He had already filmed in South Dakota, then far outside the reach of Hollywood business reps. Filmgroup would flee to Puerto Rico and then to Europe, to allow Roger to continue to produce his films out of his pockets.

Forget Puppy Love. Think INSECT FEAR.

But one of The Filmgroup’s first efforts The Wasp Woman was made right in Hollywood, with Roger and Gene’s extensive coterie of production people. Corman quoted the budget at $50,000. Filmed more like a TV show, it was all shot on the one large stagebound set, eliminating the typical frantic dashing between scattered locations. Likely inspired by the success of The Fly, the story of a cosmetics entrepreneur who changes into an insect while trying out a miracle rejuvenation drug has at least a drip of topicality, as royal bee jelly then being touted as having a possible anti-aging effect. The weak end of the ’50s monster boom unleashed walking trees, fish men and Alligator People, but Corman’s wasp opus has enough quality in its modest setup to please an audience, even now.

 

Another possible influence on Wasp are ‘corporate struggle’ pictures like Executive Suite. The streamlined plot of this 63-minute show simply sees executive Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) enthusing over the rejuvenating effects of a royal jelly serum concocted by the kindly Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark). Janice’s glamorous, youthful personality has made the Starlin Company successful, but now that she’s entering her ‘forties she no longer feels her looks are good enough for the ads. As the treatments are done in secrecy, executive secretary Mary (Barboura Morris) and the veepees Bill and Arthur (Anthony Eisley & William Roerick) consider intervening for Janice’s own good… until the lady boss shows up one morning looking nearly twenty years younger. There’s only one minor side effect, involving insectoid transformations and bloody murders.

Less off-the-cuff and haphazard than some of Corman’s earlier pictures, The Wasp Woman makes a good swipe at mainstream respectability. The screenplay has natural dialogue and the cast plays as if well rehearsed. Compared to the strained dramatics in Corman’s War of the Satellites this show is quite professional. After trying and failing to work fancy special effects into his movies (Satellites, The Viking Women) Corman seems to have decided that modest monsters are the best.

Carrying most of the show is the ’50s actress Susan Cabot, a minor ’50s actress who has remained a favorite of cult film fans. Tiny but full of energy, Cabot excels as frontier women, Indian maidens, criminal gun molls and a Viking queen. She sells Janice Starlin’s quest for youth and performs a fairly subtle transformation from Old Janice to Young Janice. The aging tricks are basic, and a new hairstyle and makeup treatment cheat a little, but Cabot’s playing does most of the work. The instant glamour fantasy makeover works better here than with Mari Blanchard in She-Devil (a change in hair color) or Coleen Gray in The Leech Woman (extensive effects makeup).

 

Susan Cabot, Barboura Morris and Bruno VeSota were Corman regulars, and seven or eight additional speaking parts are taken by Industrial Grade performers that never blow a line reading: Frank Gerstle, Anthony Eisley, William Roerick. Morris, Anthony Eisley and William Roerick look as though they’ve worked hard preparing scenes, responding with enthusiasm to material that’s better than merely functional.

This may be fave actress Barboura Morris’s biggest film part, but she’s let down a bit by the producer’s frugality. At the New York headquarters of a glamorous cosmetics company, we’d expect most of the female staff to dress more fashionably than the norm. Corman should have sprung for a hairdresser for Ms. Morris — she almost looks mousy, and could use a hairstyle to go with her winning smile.

Almost every role in the show is ‘somebody.’ Frank Wolff was to star in the Cormans’ next Filmgroup production Beast from Haunted Cave; his part here is little more than a walk-on. Not faring at all well is Bruno VeSota, who tries too hard to milk a nothing appearance as Starlin Enterprise’s security guard. Roger Corman has a stand-still-and-speak bit as a doctor, brother Gene is one of the Starlin execs (I thought at first it might be Roger). Thanks to Tom Weaver we now know that the credited ‘Lani Mars’ is actually the first writer on the project, Kinta Zertuche. The adventurous USC English professor- turned Corman assistant is quoted in Corman’s autobio, where she’s called ‘Kinta Zabel’ and not identified as the author of the film’s story.

 

Several scenes are stolen by actress Lynn Cartwright, the gorgeous wife of screenwriter Leo Gordon. Forever doing her nails, her receptionist Maureen lays on a Brooklyn accent to talk about her attentive boyfriend, and their nights spent watching TV. A full 34 years later, Cartwright would make her mark playing the older iteration of Geena Davis in the modern classic A League of Their Own.

Lynn Cartwright won a good part the next year in Billy Wilder’s huge hit The Apartment, as the hyper-efficient elevator supervisor (click-click) who gives instructions to Shirley MacLaine’s character. The odd thing is that Cartwright’s gossiping character has a comic parallel in The Apartment, with Joan Shawlee’s charming insurance company switchboard operator Sylvia. Both women gossip about after-hours escapades with their boyfriends watching TV — Maureen title-drops Dr. Cyclops while Sylvia talks about the then-most popular TV show The Untouchables. The coincidence is just strong enough for a mention.

At the other end of the production spectrum from Billy Wilder, Roger Corman chose well with veteran cameraman Harry Neumann, who appears to use mostly one lens for the whole show. Neumann’s efficient lighting has a TV look by day, and rather nice backlighting in some of the night scenes. In the name of economy the attack scenes use only one or two angles until the finish. The scenic backing of New York skyscrapers viewed through Janice’s picture window would have been convincing if Neumann had just overexposed it more and let it wash out, approximating real life (and hiding a big crease in the painting).

 

Corman’s camera moves just enough to avoid the static feel of many movies in this budget range. The only experimental moment in his direction is a transition that cuts to Susan Cabot pivoting into frame, as the camera tilts up from the opposite direction. It’s a reveal of the ‘new’ Janice, and perhaps expresses her new energy. The Wasp Monster’s final appointment with a convenient skyscraper window isn’t badly handled, especially compared to the inexcusably clumsy window-exit of Lee J. Cobb in Nicholas Ray’s then-recent gangster tale Party Girl.

Because the monster’s murder victims simply disappear, are we supposed to assume that the WASP-y Miss Starlin actually EATS them? Corman’s wasp costume is likely effective because we see it only in quick glimpses, with Ms. Cabot usually moving quickly. The dark blood splattering over her victims was likely a thrill in 1959. One revealing close-up of the mask works well for formalism’s sake — Cabot tilts her head upward like a classic movie monster. I think that’s why we’ve stayed loyal to The Wasp Woman — it’s at heart a pleasingly unpretentious monster movie.


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Wasp Woman is a very happy revelation. For a good fifty years I’ve seen the movie only in miserable dark and blurry TV prints, or bad PD presentations that likely discouraged a decent home video release. TCM has been showing a fairly good fullscreen transfer, but this matted widescreen presentation is far better — sharp, bright and very clean. Scream touts it as a ‘2K scan of a fine grain printing element,’ not a projection print. The widescreen framing restores a feeling of compositional balance missing since its theatrical run. To pad the picture out for ninety-minute TV slots, Corman had Jack Hill film a dawdling 11-minute preamble scene with Dr. Zinthrop among his beehives. It’s viewable as a second, 74-minute menu choice.

The scan is so good that we can make out all kinds of production ‘dings,’ like a boom shadow that dogs one camera move, In the one-shot ‘place holder’ scene where Dr. Zinthrop is hit by an off-screen car, we can now see the actor’s un-disturbed shadow standing in a stage wait, until he is cued to fall back into the frame, seriously injured.

Did Corman ask composer Fred Katz to come up with half an hour of generic movie music, for random use? Originally heard in Wasp Woman, this somewhat kooky score became a much better fit in the later Little Shop of Horrors. The cues line up nicely in the first act, but later on keep popping up where they’re not wanted, becoming repetitive aural wallpaper. One ‘funny’ cue plays over what wants to be a suspenseful build-up to a murder scene.

The trailer for Wasp Woman must be a rarity, for Scream uses the blurry eyesore seen on the web. The disc comes with two commentaries, which for a film this brief is actually a good idea. Troy Howarth’s standard track dishes out information that can be gleaned from the web and various books on Roger Corman. Howarth goes more deeply into actor bios than does the second commentary by the dean of monsterdom research, Tom Weaver.

 

Weaver gives us a good run-down on the birth of The Filmgroup and helps identify ‘mystery’ faces on screen: Gene Corman, Kinta Zertuche, etc.. He even points out an actor who plays both one of Starlin Cosmetics’ executives AND a second delivery man. Exhibition expert (not exhibitionist) Dr. Robert Kiss steps in for several minutes to detail the exhibition roll-out for Wasp Woman, which initially played with Beast from Haunted Cave.

Weaver skips many details simply because he wanted to devote half his track on this short picture to his career-long investigation into the story of actress Susan Cabot. The long, involved story includes the mysterious paternity of Ms. Cabot’s son, the C.I.A. serving as pimps for a foreign dignitary, strange health problems and the possible effects of odd drugs, and finally a sensational Hollywood murder and its subsequent trial. Weaver goes into this detail because Ms. Cabot was one of his initial interview subjects when plumbing the history of Hollywood monster-dom; he met with her enough to form a strong opinion of her sad story. It’s a worthy Hollywood mystery and a great listen.

As a kid, I remember schoolyard friends complaining that the genuine wasp monster depicted on the film’s poster art is a real cheat. If Corman hadn’t limited his special effect budget to one mask and a pair of monster gloves, he might have seen that Wasp Woman needed something to express Janice Starlin’s Kafka-like mid-metamorphosis confusion. I propose a freakish dream sequence: a stick puppet of the horror on the poster could have featured in a psychedelic, drug-induced hallucination. In revisiting his A.I.P. Poe adaptations, Roger hasn’t shied away from assigning an intellectually-based motivation for some of his cinematic choices. With Wasp Woman content to remain a standard monster opus, we’d have to wait 26 years for a horrendous expression of ‘insect politics,’ in David Cronenberg’s icky remake of The Fly.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Wasp Woman
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Both versions of the film; audio commentaries with Troy Howarth, and Tom Weaver and Robert J. Kiss; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2019
(5902wasp)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.