Throughout the Great Depression, liberalism in the United States meant either communism or socialism. The ravages of financial panic soured relations between the workers and their capitalist overlords, and voters’ eagerly turned towards the soft socialism of the New Deal as a cure for their wretched lot. The naked hypocrisy of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, news of Stalin’s atrocities and the start of the Cold War in turn soured the American public on communism. The great post-war boom that brought wealth and prosperity to an unprecedented number of Americans swung the population away from socialism altogether. At the same time McCarthyite witch-hunts made it politically dangerous to identify with either ideology that had previously been the mainstays of American liberalism. Of course, liberalism would persist in America, but the transformation of the 50s ensured that it would have to take on a new form: One that celebrated entrepreneurship, championed individual rights, and opposed the growing corporate-military complex that governed the nation. Historians can pick out any number of individuals to serve as exemplars of this new movement, from Jack Kennedy to C.W. Mills; yet to me none can compare to Roger Corman. Corman was very much a businessman, devoted above all else to the pursuit of worldly success. The very title of his autobiography boasts of his business acumen (How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime). All the same, Corman was a dedicated and principled liberal. In the Trip (1967) he became an advocate for the youth counter-culture in general and the use of psychedelic drugs in particular. New World Pictures, the studio he founded in 1970, would make him a great deal of money, but it would also provide countless opportunities for women both in front, and more crucially, behind the camera. His liberalism would blossom more fully in the 60s and 70s, yet it is on display as early as 1959, as plainly evidenced by today’s film.
The film opens with a nice sequence that skewers the unthinking conformity of American business culture, one of the new left’s favorite targets. Zinthrop, an eccentric scientist is employed as a researcher at an apiary. The other managers dutifully churn out honey, just as their boss expects and are promptly praised for their efforts. Zinthrop on the other hand is hard at work harvesting the royal jelly of queen wasps, something that is way outside of his job description. His work isn’t in vain, he has already come up with a solution that arrests the aging process, and has even moved on to animal tests. With a little more time and money he’ll be able to reverse the aging process. The manager is so stuck in his ways and blind to anything aside the company line that he sees no possible commercial applications for such a product. So, the nameless middle manager fires Zinthrop, the scientist responsible for the greatest medical breakthrough of all time, because he just doesn’t fit in with the company culture.
In premise, the Wasp Woman is almost identical to The Leech Woman, a film released the next year by Universal Studios. Here, the similarity of the two titles serves to illustrate their differences more plainly. Both films are about older women who discover the ability to de-age themselves, only to discover that their newfound youth comes at a terrible price. In the Leech Woman, Jane Talbot, the titular monster, is motivated by grief over her lost beauty and resentment towards her neglectful husband. She is very much the product of a traditional male understanding of women, and consequently feels dated and clichéd. This is not the case with Janet Starling, AKA the Wasp Woman, unlike Jane she is very much her own woman, she owns a successful cosmetics company that she built from the ground up. In addition to running the company she served as the company’s public face in all their advertising campaigns until she deemed herself too old to do so. Since she retired as the chief model of the brand, sales have tanked, and now she’s desperate to regain her youth and beauty to save her business. Starling’s motivation then are not tied to any need for male approval, they are simply the result of her boundless ambition. In his handling of this atypical characterization, Corman never comes across as preachy, the character’s motivations are consistent and that for him is sufficient. The very understatement of it makes the effect all the more revolutionary.
Starling turns to Zinthrop to provide her with a pharmacological fountain of youth, which he is happy to do so. Starling keeps the whole project secret from her executives, who have no choice but to defer to her judgment. The characters in the film are all universally suspicious of Zinthrop, one of Starling’s secretaries even calls him a regular “Two-Eyed Dr. Cyclops” (after the 1940 horror film that her boyfriend prefers to watch on TV instead of taking her out dancing). I don’t know what they’re talking about though; Zinthrop comes across as someone’s kindly grandfather, all smiles folksy wisdom and old-fashioned trust. Indeed, he’s so trusting that he refuses to even sign a contract with Starling, preferring instead to rely on her word of honor. At least Arthur Cooper, Starling’s head of Research and Development has a reason to be wary of Zinthrop, the mad scientist has usurped his position. Cooper says that he’s just worried about Starling’s safety and pocketbook, but I detect more than a little professional jealousy in his dogged attempts to discredit Zinthrop. He enlists the aid of his fellow executive Bill Lane and Starling’s secretary Mary Dennison to find some proof about what Zinthrop is up in his lab.
Despite Cooper’s insistence to the contrary, Zinthrop is the real deal, his solution works wonders on cats and guinea pigs (the later it transformed into mice, presumably because the audience in 1959 was as incapable of differentiating between an old and young guinea pig as I am). Starling is so impressed that she orders Zinthrop to begin human trials at once, and insists that she be his first test subject as part of their deal. Zinthrop would rather hold off until the formula is perfected, but he allows Starling to twist his arm into doing it all the same. The formula doesn’t work as well on humans, and three weeks of regular injections have only aged Starling back to 35 or so, obviously she wants more. As it happens Zinthrop has just finished work on a new formula, one that is much more powerful but which he fears will be dangerous to inject into a living creature. He’s right and one his test subjects, a cat, goes feral and tries to maul him the next day. Starling doesn’t know that, and the allure of instant youth and beauty proves to strong for her to resist. Late one night she sneaks into Zinthrop’s lab and injects herself with the powerful formula. She is instantly aged back to 22, the age she was when she started her company. Now, with all the resources she amassed over 18 years of hard work, she’s ready to begin again; it doesn’t hurt that she has the most revolutionary elixir already tested and ready for market.
This is where things start going wrong. There is a downside to Zinthrop’s more powerful formula: whenever Starling goes into withdrawal, which happens fairly regularly, she transforms into an insectoid creature and kills the nearest person. The first victim of her rampages is Cooper, who despite seeing his boss de-age 18 years overnight still doesn’t believe that Zinthrop is anything more than a quack. Cooper snoops around in Zinthrop’s lab late at night, only to run afoul of the newly transformed Wasp Woman, needless to say he doesn’t survive. There is only a limited amount of formula remaining too, which wouldn’t be such a problem, but shortly after she injects herself with the new drug, a car hits Zinthrop. The accident leaves him alive but barely able to communicate, and even with the best care that money can provide it doesn’t look like the old scientist will ever be able to pick up a test tube again. Meanwhile Bill and Mary are getting suspicious about their friend’s sudden disappearance, and the subsequent disappearance of a night watchman under similar circumstances. All the while Starling’s behavior grows more erratic and desperate as her health begins to deteriorate.
Aside from it’s interesting political implications the Wasp Woman is a fairly by-the-numbers horror film of the werewolf school. By that, I do not mean that anyone is turning into a wolf, but rather it deals with a monster that emerges from, and eventually dominates, a sympathetic character. The monster in this case is a cut above the other insectoid humans of the era, easily beating out the rubber mask from The Fly. Unlike it’s more famous counter part the monster in The Wasp Woman is genuinely repulsive on an instinctive animal level. The flaws of the get-up are hidden, as the creature is invariably shot in darkness, not so much that you can’t see anything but just enough that you get a faint sense of what might be lurking in the darkness. Starling’s physical attractiveness while in human form, even when she is suppose to be pushing 40, serves to make the wasp form all the more horrific. Indeed, Starling sympathetic, even admirable, motivations make her downfall take on a tragic dimension that most werewolf-style horror movies only aspire to.