Female monsters: “The Wasp Woman” (1959)

30 March 2012

According to Roger Corman’s classic cult film The Wasp Woman, the first in my mini-marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters, we should be worried about two things: women’s fear of aging (who doesn’t know that?) and science (again, duh). Early on, the experimental scientist Dr. Zinthrop tries to explain to his boss that he thinks he has found a miracle anti-aging drug in the royal jelly of queen wasps. The man replies:

“Listen, Zinthrop, I understand about science, and progress, and all that, but you were obtained to extract queen bee royal jelly. Now, it’s a health food! A cosmetic! It’s not a miracle drug or an elixir of youth! That sort of thing is impossible!”

Oh, Zinthrop, why didn’t you listen?

Like any good would-be mad scientist, he heads for New York City — where cosmetics magnate Janice Starlin is meeting with her team to talk about why the company’s profits have taken such a nosedive. Why? one brave marketing douchebag asks mockingly — because you, Janice, have gotten old. Her haggard face makes the whole company look bad. Who wouldn’t agree with those lines and the bags under her eyes? horrors! and I haven’t even shown you an image of her terrible glasses!

Don’t get the wrong impression: as unflattering as that screen shot is, Janice Starlin is no bitch. Now, I’m relatively new to the genre of female monsters, but it seems to me that ultimately these films address what we might call the Bitch Semiotic, in honor of the classic Sigourney Weaver line in Aliens: “Get away from her, you bitch!” delivered to the gigantic alien monster mother. Film monster women might have many reasons to be bitchy, and many manifestations of their bitchiness. Janice, in contrast, is merely tragic — tragically desirous of a more youthful appearance.

She tries to explain Zinthrop’s wasp jelly plan to a member of her company’s marketing team named Cooper, but he won’t have any of it. In fact, he’s a font of condescending and questionable entomological wisdom:

“I’d stay away from wasps if I were you, Miss Starlin. Socially, the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way, too. Strictly a one-sided romance!” [har, har.]

With bad jokes like that, I could hardly wait till Cooper’s own foreshadowing did him in.

Naturally, Janice arranges with Zinthrop for secret injections of the wasp serum — in deliciously perverse needle scenes set in classic Hollywood laboratories. Naturally, when the reverse aging process doesn’t proceed as rapidly as she’d hoped, she sneaks into the lab and injects herself with more. Naturally, someone says (prophetically), “Cosmetics are one thing. Medication is another.” And naturally, Zinthrop’s experiments weren’t thorough enough to show the dangerous side effects:

But my favorite is the great line, muttered amongst some company employees baffled by the mysterious changes to company policies: “It’s not funny any more, Mary. There’s something going on in that building — [dramatic pause] — and I’m gonna find out what it is.” Screenwriters of yore, where have you gone? Why can’t we enjoy scintillating, literary subtlety as in days gone by?

Don’t get me wrong — there are many things to recommend The Wasp Woman: 1) it’s only 73 minutes long; 2) it’s streaming on YouTube and Archive.org as well as Netflix; and 3) in refusing to engage with the Bitch Semiotic, this film allows its star, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) to appear so genuinely appealing that she actually subverts the plot a little bit.

You’d think this would devolve into a simple tale of a woman driven mad (and carnivorous, and murderous of her mates) by her need to appear younger-looking — heaven knows that’s what all of Cooper’s foreshadowing indicated. But in matter of fact she’s surprisingly touching. It’s hard to hate her when she prances into the office one morning looking to-die-for gorgeous. She asks her secretary how old she looks. 23? the secretary guesses. Maybe 22? at which Janice looks wistful, for that’s the age at which she started her cosmetics company — 18 years ago. (Yes: that means she’s 40 years old!) The film doesn’t demand that her delight in looking young would itself make her a monster of vanity, or a killer of more beautiful women, like the evil Queen in Snow White who stands in front of her mirror all the time. (Are there really two Snow White films coming out this year? Groan.)

I started this marathon of cult horror films not just because I love cult films and need more excuses to see them, but because I think the subject of female monsters seems rich with interpretive possibility. It seems to me there are at least two primary questions that help us assess the genre: what causes their monstrosity? and, what does their monstrosity make them do to the other characters, aka men?

I’m willing to guess that most female movie monsters are driven to their monstrosity by singularly female traits. Whether it’s their desperate desire to be beautiful, their overpowering sexual drive, their crazed dementia after being dumped by a man, or (as in Aliens) a maternal instinct on steroids, Hollywood’s female monsters are — I suspect — just the flip side of Hollywood’s typical gender code. These are Girls Gone Wild, except usually in a bitchy way.

In playing out these narratives of women who’ve let their natural lady-ness take them way too far, I’m guessing The Wasp Woman is a bit of an outlier. Not only does it refuse to turn Janice into a bitch, but there’s no sex, no dangerous lady-temptress luring a man into her web of lies.

What’s next? Depends on availability and information. I’ve been constructing a list that includes the following:

  • Astounding She Monster (1957)
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1960)
  • The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Black Sunday (1960)
  • Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
  • Cobra Woman (1944)
  • Devil Dolls (1936)
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  • Gill-Women of Venus, or Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968)
  • The Gorgon (1964)
  • Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
  • Queen of Outer Space (1958)
  • The Reptile (1966)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Wild Women of Wongo (1958)

I have yet to work out the kinks in my system — after all, I want women who actually turn into monsters, not just sexy vampires or sexy prehistoric women, so some of these titles may have to go. I’m also taking suggestions.

Some advice to all us ladies: go out there and kick your own Bitch Semiotic today. Why, the next thing you know, we’ll have our own Hallmark holiday.

8 Responses to “Female monsters: “The Wasp Woman” (1959)”

  1. servetus Says:

    Is Lovely Partner watching these with you?

  2. JB Says:

    Off to a terrific start! Was wondering if you were interested in, or perhaps have already seen, Captive Wild Woman. Not sure if its eponymous female is monstrous exactly, but it is in any case very much worth your time. And directed by Edward Dymtryk! I wrote a very brief thing about it in this roundup:

    • Didion Says:

      Any film that gives this prominent billing to a woman named Acquanetta — one imagines she’s acquired her superpowers by means of huffing hairspray — wins me over immediately. So Captive Wild Woman is going straight onto the list. Moreover, unlike Mesa of Lost Women, which I watched last night, this one has a surprisingly high rating on imdb.com.

      Further study has indicated that I may have to break my rule about fiendishly sexy women. I comfort myself that at least they’re from outer space/ prehistoric/ part cat/ infested with wasp venom/ constructed in a lab using the pituitary gland of a spider.

  3. Aldine Says:

    oooh streaming on archive.org. i feel a pyjama day coming on…

  4. Hattie Says:

    Did you notice how visually sparse this movie was? In those days there were lots fewer people and lots less stuff.

  5. […] The Wasp Woman was the first feature in my Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters — and it shares something in common with Mesa of Lost Women: the theme that science is dangerous. But whereas poor Janice Starlin believed the wasp venom would make her look younger with no side effects (oh, woman’s vanity and foolishness!) Dr. Araña has less scientifically justifiable aims. […]

  6. […] to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy […]

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