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In 1954, young Roger Corman teamed with Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to form American Releasing Corp. (ARC), later renamed American International Pictures (AIP). At the time, the major studios were losing their iron grip on the film industry, and the trio took advantage of this to edge their way into the industry by producing and distributing low-budget films. Corman not only served as a producer, but he sometimes directed, establishing his unpolished, one-take style with the bargain-basement aesthetic. In the late 1950s, Corman formed his own production/distribution company, The Filmgroup, to maximize control over his films.
After churning out several low-budget westerns and dramas for ARC, Corman turned to horror, science fiction, and teen exploitation during the mid-1950s and then continued to produce these genres for The Filmgroup. Typical titles at this time included War of the Satellites (1958), Carnival Rock (1957), It Conquered the World (1956), and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). Corman made his films for teen audiences who, for the first time in American history, had become a distinct marketing demographic targeted by movie studios. With his sensationalized subject matter, low-budget but visceral style, and uncanny ability to exploit the latest subgenres, trends, and youth fads, Corman found success with this audience. The Wasp Woman (1959), which was the first release from The Filmgroup, fits neatly into Corman's work at this time.
With a nod to 1958's highly successful The Fly released the previous year by a major studio, Corman produced and directed this low-budget addition to the mutant insect-human subgenre. The story begins with the strange activities of scientist Dr. Eric Zinthrop, who is fired from the Honey Fresh Bee Farm for conducting personal experiments with wasps on company property. He approaches Janice Starlin of Starlin Enterprises, a major cosmetics firm, about using his scientific discoveries on the rejuvenating properties of wasp enzymes to develop new products. Starlin's company is suffering from a decline in sales, which her board members attribute to Janice's aging appearance now that she is in her forties. She is eager for Dr. Zinthrop to develop a youth serum, which she plans to test on herself. When Dr. Zinthrop's small dosages don't work quickly enough for Janice, she sneaks into his lab to take additional and larger doses. The result is foreshadowed by the film's title as Janice intermittently turns into a blood-sucking insect, with the head of the wasp and the body of a human. She subdues her victims by striking at their necks like a vampire.
Shot in two weeks on a $50,000 budget, The Wasp Woman reflects Corman's cost-cutting tactics and low-budget aesthetic. With such a short shooting schedule, he seldom shot more than one take unless there was a drastic error or malfunction. Dialogue scenes with shot/reverse shot, in which the characters engage in conversation with each other, suffer the most. The framing of the characters doesn't always align correctly in some dialogue scenes as he cuts back and forth between speaker and respondent, resulting in noticeably awkward editing. Many scenes avoid dialogue altogether as the characters walk for extended distances in long shot or drive endlessly around city streets, which are set-ups that are quick and cheap to produce. When Dr. Zinthrop attempts to prove to Janice that his serum can make any living creature younger, he injects two tubby guinea pigs with the substance and places them in a cage out of frame. In the next shot, the test subjects have inexplicably turned into average-sized white mice, suggesting the previous creatures were supposed to be an older version of these same rodents.
The special effects consisted of mechanical effects or sleights of hand rather than camera tricks, which would have cost more money and time. The Wasp Woman's attacks on the necks of her victims are supposed to draw blood to make the scenes seem violent and gruesome. The actress who starred as Janice Starlin, Susan Cabot, squirted chocolate sauce in her mouth during a transformation scene; when her huge wasp mask was close enough to her costar's neck, she spit out the chocolate sauce so that it ran down the victim's neck. In black and white, the sauce looks like thick blood. The final scene, which involves hand-to-hand fighting and some loosely choreographed action, was shot in one take and then intercut with inserts and reaction shots in postproduction. This meant that any missteps or unintentional moves that occurred during shooting likely ended up in the final film. For example, while the Wasp Woman is in the throes of battle with protagonist Bill Lane, Dr. Zinthrop tosses a bottle of acid at her head. Unfortunately, someone had filled the breakaway bottle entirely with water, and when it hit Cabot's mouth, it did not break. Instead, the heavy bottle hit her hard in the teeth, stunning Cabot momentarily. In the film, when the Wasp Woman holds her face with her claw-like hands, this gesture is not part of the original blocking for the scene; it was the result of the force of the blow knocking Cabot off guard. To simulate burning acid, the production assistants doused liquid smoke onto the antennas of her costume. The smoke went up her nostrils, but the costume did not have a hole for the mouth, so she had no way to breath. She clawed and scratched at the air, which prompted someone to throw water on her when she backed out of camera range.
However low budget and campy the special effects are in The Wasp Woman, Corman is applauded by many contemporary scholars for his modern female characters whose misadventures often reflect feminist issues or concerns. Just how deliberately political his intentions were is open to debate, but The Wasp Woman does feature some interesting themes and subtexts regarding powerful women in modern society. Janice Starlin is a cool-headed businesswoman in charge of her own major cosmetics company, and yet her bottom line is directly connected to her age and beauty. With Janice visibly aging, the company's success and profits are plummeting, which makes viewers sympathetic to the Wasp Woman's motives and provokes us to realize that this would not be the case if a man were in charge. Plus, her reason for risking her health in order to look younger is not to attract the attention of men but to ensure the success of her company and retain her power as CEO. Typically, women are motivated to commit dark deeds for love, while men are motivated by success and power. In The Wasp Woman, the reverse is true.
Typical of the actresses Corman hired, star Susan Cabot was not only game to do her own stunts and fight scenes but she was a good sport about the low-budget special effects. In addition to The Wasp Woman, she appeared in five other Corman films from around this time: Carnival Rock (1957), Sorority Girl (1957), Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), War of the Satellites, and the unbelievably titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). After her stint with Corman, Cabot drifted into a high-profile romance with Jordan's King Hussein before settling down as actress in series television. Sadly, she came to disturbing and tragic end: In 1986, she was killed by her son, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The year after The Wasp Woman, Corman produced and directed House of Usher (1960), starring Vincent Price, which began his highly successful cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Though deviating greatly from the source material, the Poe series is arguably his most respected cycle of horror films. Hollywood in the 1950s proved to be Corman's training ground for developing his long, successful career.
Producer: Roger Corman for The Filmgroup
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Leo Gordon from a story by Kinta Zertuche
Cinematography: Harry C. Newman
Editor: Carlo Lodato
Art Director: Dan Haller
Makeup: Grant Keate
Music: Fred Katz
Cast: Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot), Bill Lane (Fred Eisley), Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris), Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark), Les Hellman (Frank Gerstle), Paul Thompson (Roy Gordon), Jean Carson (Carolyn Hughes), Maureen Reardon (Lynn Cartwright).
by Susan Doll