If you read this blog somewhat regularly, you know that from time to time, I like to review insect-themed horror movies. (For my previous reviews, you can search “Reel Bugs.”) I do this A) because these movies are a good way to understand the historical relationship humans have had with insects, which is a theme of my upcoming book, and B) because these movies are a guilty pleasure of mine. The title of today’s featured insect horror film: The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959), starring Susan Cabot.
I, for one, was quaking in my chair even before the opening credits had finished rolling. Wasps and hornets scare me (as I’ve previously mentioned). They can sting you multiple times. In the insect world, some wasp species parasitize other insects, injecting their eggs into a host insect, along with a chemical that paralyzes the host without killing it. The host slowly gets eaten from the inside out by the newly hatched wasp larva. And practically all wasps are carnivorous, chewing up insects’ bodies, feeding the chewed up guts to wasp larvae, and then dining off the secretions from the larvae. Some of them are just plain horrifying, like the Japanese Giant Hornet, which can spray flesh-melting poison (warning—that link has some swear words in it).
But let’s get back to the fictional world, which is less scary.
The plot revolves around a disgruntled mad scientist, Dr. Zinthrop, who is fired from his job at a honey-making facility, just as he has discovered an enzyme in royal jelly that can “stimulate the process of rejuvenation.” He pitches his still-in-development youth serum to the beautiful-but-aging cosmetics mogul, Janice Starlin. Her company, Starlin Cosmetics, is facing declining profits, and no wonder. She’s the face of the advertising, and she’s nearing forty! (The special effects that show how she’s aged are dark, shadowy swaths of makeup around her eyes and a pair of old-maid glasses.)
Janice insists on being the first test subject for Dr. Zinthrop’s product, but she’s too impatient to wait for the weekly injections to work. So she breaks into his lab one night and injects herself with a whopping dose. Oopsa-daisy. The next morning she comes into the office looking twenty again, but the unfortunate side effect is that she becomes a murderous half-wasp, half-woman by night and attacks, chews, and swallows up any colleagues who get too nosy.
Her wasp costume is not, um, very convincing. The antennae appear to be made of pipe cleaners.
Entomologically speaking, it’s kind of a cool idea. Royal jelly is a secretion made from the salivary glands of worker bees. It’s fed to larvae for a few days, and to a new queen larva for her whole larval existence, which triggers queen morphology. Wasps make royal jelly, too, lending an ominous air of plausibility to the plot. (Actually, not really.)
The movie is an excellent satire on our enduring preoccupation with beauty and youth. There are a number of edge-of-your-seat boardroom scenes with the male executives all smoking and two female secretaries taking notes. There’s a funny scene when Dr. Zinthrop gets attacked by a kitten that’s had too big a dose of wasp serum (reminiscent of the Killer Bunny from Holy Grail). And there’s a thigh-slapping scene at Dr. Zinthrop’s hospital bedside, when he’s lying in a coma with brain damage and Janice orders the attending physician to “Get the best doctor. I’ll take full responsibility for the cost.” And the attending physician replies, “Yes, Miss Starlin.”