The Wasp Woman

The Wasp Woman. Santa Cruz Productions 1959.

Before watching the movie:

Here’s another cold watch of an old B-movie. I could try to do some quick research to get more early impressions, but sometimes it’s more interesting to know as little as possible.

Woman turns into a wasp-monster. I saw something about royal jelly, so I assume it’s an experiment gone wrong. Sounds interesting, and hopefully the fun kind of bad.

After watching the movie:

Dr. Eric Zinthrop, recently let go from a honey producing company that could no longer support the mysterious and fantastical-sounding experiments he was hired to research, brings his nearly-completed work on creating a youth serum from a substance extracted from wasp royal jelly to cosmetics company Janice Starlin Enterprises. Starlin Enterprises is a sinking ship, which its executive directors attribute to the fact that the company’s public perception is directly linked to Ms. Starlin’s youthful image, and she is now middle-aged. Easily convinced by Zinthrop’s demonstrations, Starlin hires him, gives him a lab and an unrestricted budget, and insists on being his first human test subject when he’s ready. Though those around her are concerned that the unknown doctor that reports only to the head of the company is either a confidence trickster or a quack, after a month of injections, Starlin looks about five years younger. Desperate for more obvious results, Starlin begins sneaking into the lab at night to inject herself with the new, stronger formulation that Zinthrop intended for use in lotions.

This is a slow burn of a story. I guess it’s horror, but the injections don’t begin until halfway through the story and the results are slow. Every step along the way feels inevitable, and the climax is the only thing that could have happened, so it has the effect of watching a car crash filmed at high speed. Besides the pacing, which is to be expected, the main thing I would’ve liked to see different is that, like most movies of the time, it hits a hard stop as soon as the principal conflict is resolved and stories are better with a denouement or epilogue to establish the new normal. Also it doesn’t seem to make any sense how the last girl survived to the final shot establishing she’s okay.

I kind of appreciated that nobody is evil in this story. Zinthrop is a very nice old man who happens to be able to do impossible things that nobody believes. Starlin is reckless out of desperation, but it’s like the hubris of a tragic hero. The concerned subordinates are all looking out for their friend and boss. Even the bean counter from the honey company who fires Zinthrop, the least likeable character, is acting rationally. It’s all shockingly wholesome for a mad science horror show.

The wasp transformations are, of course, pretty underwhelming. She has a bug-eyed mask and claws and that’s about it. Likewise, the demonstrations that Zinthrop has to show are of the nature of “look, this puppy and this giant adult dog were born from the same litter, but I gave the puppy the formula.” Everyone who sees the experiments believes them completely even though they prove nothing in a vacuum. The closest the script comes to acknowledging that it could be a fake but within the story it isn’t is that Starlin remarks that the kitten that Zinthrop regressed from an adult cat has the same mark. I would’ve preferred more skepticism or more handwaving.

This was interesting, even though I had to give it a lot of slack for when it was made and how little money it was made for. It’s also another reminder that midcentury sci-fi horror can’t all be painted with the same brush. I would’ve liked the thing I thought it was going to be more, but this was fascinating all the same.

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