The same can't be said for The Wasp Woman. Corman films from the last 50's and early 60’s tend to fall in one of two categories: enjoyable B-thriller/comedies (The Little Shop of Horrors, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) and lazy monster movies pieced together with crappy stock footage, derivative of whatever the last big creature feature was (It Conquered the World, Creature from the Haunted Sea). Not that the latter movies didn't have their charm – they all employ inventive low-budget effects and have rightly secured their cult status; I for one love the fact that they exist. But after seeing a genuinely tense exploitation film like Sorority Girl it was tough to get through The Wasp Woman, Corman's attempt to cash in on the success of 20th Century Fox's The Fly from the year before. Following a slow expository forty minutes, the formula throughout the second act is fairly tedious and unremarkable: attack, confusion, attack. Compared to the former film's amazing credit sequence, titles over a generic shot of a quilt of angry wasps didn't help (although Fred Katz's jazzy score is a lot of fun).
All that aside, the movie is actually a perfect companion piece to Sorority Girl*. In both films Cabot plays a character whose insecurity turns her into a monster, although she fits the more classic definition and racks up a higher body count in The Wasp Woman**. She plays cosmetics entrepreneur Janice Starlin, whose face launched the look and line of Starlin Enterprises when she was a fierce vixen of 22. Sixteen years older (hence the heavy glasses and lack of make-up – Cabot even employs some creative face scrunching) Janice is losing the fire she needs to keep her company's executives in check and beauty that drew customers to its ads (I have to admit, I was perplexed as to why they didn't just run ads featuring the older/younger photos of her – it's not like Wendy from Wendy's or Aunt Jemima updated their photos every couple of years). Lucky for her, a shady entomologist has been extracting enzymes from the royal jelly of queen wasps which he claims can reverse the aging process. Although it's still being tested on cats and guinea pigs, Janice steals into the lab and starts injecting more than the prescribed dosage. The serum makes her younger, the company's business skyrockets, the crazy scientist gets a healthy bonus, he marries Janice and they both move to Europe and live happily ever after.
Ok, we all know that's not what happens. Not spoiling too much, I can reveal that one of the previously mentioned characters transforms into a wasp monster with a human female body and the other ends up being killed by the monster. But I won't say which one – you'll have to see for yourself.
Although she's not "aged" very convincingly (just over 30 at the time, Cabot is fixed up with heavy eyebrows and an awkward haircut that’s a mix of Princess Leia and Gary Oldman's "butt-do" from Bram Stoker's Dracula), Janice's frustration over losing her once bankable looks is all over Cabot's fragile features. Like Sabra she's plagued by self-doubt and insecurity, forced to play the bully. In this case it's a corporate shell she has to wear to maintain her command as a woman in the business world - something that's simmered and dimmed with age and has to be regained. After her first transformation the desperation overwhelms her: "How old do I look? TELL ME! How old do I look?!" And as her Sorority Girl maneuvered and manipulated her way into being turned on by her fellow students, labeled inhuman - "something the sea cast out" - her Wasp Woman transforms into a creature that strikes out against every imagined enemy: her competitors, members of the board, her secretary. She meets a stickier end than Sabra, taking a vat of carbolic acid to the face and being hurled out the window. While filming this climatic battle, Cabot inhaled too much of the liquid smoke the effects guy poured on her mask and nearly suffocated. A crew member ripped off the mask (and some skin) just in time. It was the last movie she ever appeared in.
Cabot and Corman created on a small scale what William Castle and Joan Crawford achieved with their collaboration on Straight Jacket: the pairing of a schlock filmmaker offering more interesting roles and former Hollywood actress whose A-quality performance enhanced the material. Unfortunately, the Crawford connection extended to media speculation of a Mommie Dearest-esque relationship with son Timothy Roman. While he and Cabot lived as shut-ins, apparently inseparable, she was said to have forced him to take experimental growth hormones thought to have bad neurological side effects. When police arrived at the scene at 10:30 pm on December 10th, Timothy informed them that "a tall Latino with curly hair, dressed like a Japanese ninja warrior" had attacked the two of them using "ninja methods" and gotten away with $70,000 in cash. Within hours the truth emerged: he had bludgeoned her to death with a weight-lifting bar, possibly while she was asleep. He managed to convince the court that his mother lived a Norma Desmond lifestyle with a Delbert Ward sense of home decor and subjected him to "child abuse" (at the time, he was 22). He received a three-year suspended sentence and, when he got out, moved back into the house where he had murdered his own mother. He now blogs online.
I want to try not to end this one on a downer, so as an added bonus and to better appreciate the earlier, non-Corman career of Susan Cabot, I watched Don Siegel’s 1952 western The Duel at Silver Creek. Siegel's first western – and first color feature – it lacks the down-to-earth grittiness of his later studio B-movies but serves up more than its share of excellent moments. This tale of no-good claim-jumpers hiding out in a town defended by quick-draw Sheriff Lightning (Stephen McNally) and the (sort of) vengeance-seeking Silver Kid (Audie Murphy) kicks into gear right away with a hellacious shoot-out on horseback. A wounded victim of the crooks is brought into town and the female lead offers to help nurse him back to health, only to strangle the poor bastard to death! Sheriff Lightning informs a troublesome dude he's unwanted, and emphasizes it by pushing him through a saloon window! And to top it all off Audie Murphy, wearing one of the best-looking jackets in cinema history, takes decisive action when he learns his sweetheart's in the bad guys' clutches by rushing into the fray of a climatic gun battle and launching himself through the front window Mr. Majestyk-style! And keeping his hair perfectly coifed in the background is Johnny Sombrero, who has one of the best character names in the annals of western film (it's so awesome Cabot and McNally repeat the full name half a dozen times in their first dialogue together).
You know a movie's worth an hour and 17 minutes of your time if you can write an entire paragraph about it without even mentioning that Lee Marvin's in there too. A young Lee Marvin - with a mustache!
Cabot is the gal Murphy takes the suicide dive for, and she's a spitfire - a plucky tomboy with a shotgun. She doesn't fall under Johnny Sombrero's spell, and even takes aim at him during a tense stand-off with the sheriff ("I got a load of buckshot waiting for you, Johnny!") Initially she's not having any of Murphy's charms either: he has to pull off a daredevil stunt to sweep her off her feet. There's a genuinely sweet moment at the end where the Silver Kid and "Dusty" Fargo share their real names with each other, and Luke and Jane walk off into the figurative sunset together. Seeing her as a supporting character in this mileau, the epic studio B-western as opposed to the streamlined Corman B-horror or exploitation picture, you can't help but notice how she almost disappears in it. None of the insecurity or psychological damage of the Corman films follows her Dusty into the wild west - weird to think that a performance in The Wasp Woman would come across as deeper and more interesting than one in what most people would consider a more legitimate film. In Duel her tiny size is unmistakable: the famously diminutive Audie Murphy towers over her by a head (even if he was wearing lifts, that's pretty remarkable). Although she played a gunslinging girl-of-action in Siegel's film, it was as a villain and a bug in Corman's small movies that made her really seem tall.
One final thing...In reviewing the work of Susan Cabot I was captivated by another regular AIP actress who died tragically young: Barboura Morris (nee O'Neill), known as the "mystery woman of low-budget pictures." She plays Cabot's arch-nemesis in Sorority Girl (the one who yells at her "You're not human - you're something the sea cast out!" in the searing finale) and her loyal secretary/near-victim in Wasp Woman. She was a regular Corman player, most notable as Walter Paisley's reluctant muse in the classic A Bucket of Blood. Little is known about her besides the fact that she was once married to Monte Hellman and died in 1975 at age 43, supposedly of cancer. Cabot once spoke of her in an interview: "Barboura Morris was a lovely actress, a very sweet lady and a nice friend -- but she always seemed very sad to me. I'm sorry she's gone." ***
* Both films were later remade: Sorority Girl, re-titled Confessions of a Sorority Girl, was redone for TV in 1994 featuring Alyssa Milano as Rita and Brian Bloom as Mort, and Wasp Woman under the same title in 1995 by Mr. Jim Wynorski, with The Coriolis Effect’s own Jennifer Rubin in place of Cabot and Corman serving as executive producer. Wynorski by the way is now credited with directing 79 movies – what have you done lately?
** Also released as Insect Woman – watch out Imamura!
*** Whoops...guess I did end this on kind of a downer. Sorry.
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