It’s that serene time of year again, when we’re knee-deep in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and our thoughts turn naturally to horror. Come October, the stores are decked in black and orange and offer us an array of plastic pumpkins, rubber spiders, and glow-in-the-dark skulls, cheek by jowl with early Christmas decorations (oh, gad!). One emporium I passed on Sixth Avenue the other day had a giant inflatable skull propped up in front of its door. Kinda like a big white pimple extruding from a wide, blank upper lip. Near it was a sign announcing that this was the Halloween superstore. So I now know it’s Halloween time. Hip hip.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to such obtrusive advertising for important seasonal information. What might I have missed if I hadn’t seen that big blow-up cranium taking up sidewalk room, I shudder (ha ha) to contemplate. I do have a tendency to bury myself in my own esoteric pursuits, ignoring the daily traffic of life chugging on round me. But the genius of American marketing, bless it, has kept me informed of the passage of time in the greater world; rather like those falling calendar leaves in Vorkapich montages indicating how many months have conveniently dropped off the plot, without any tiresome exegesis.
Please forgive the curmudgeonly tone. I really do love Halloween. At least, I love the scary movies associated with it. Only the scary movie I’m looking at isn’t all that hot stuff, I’m afraid (scary/afraid: is there a hidden joke?). My interest in Roger Corman’s 1959 opus The Wasp Woman is not in the film itself. It’s a typical Corman cheapie of that era, looking like it was shot in a warehouse, using whatever junk furniture could be wangled from the used-particle-board wrangler. The set’s supposed to be the headquarters of a well-known cosmetics company, but the result looks like the backroom of a used-car dealer, and a morally dubious used-car dealer at that. After eyeing those offices, I wouldn’t buy a used lipstick from the place.
OK, let’s not pick on Corman’s lack of dollars. Not everyone can have Spielberg-sized budgets to play with; and I’ve seen plenty of cheap films that blow away those overpriced disasters so prevalent today. Then is it the story you find interesting?, you ask. Well, yes, I answer, the story is sorta interesting. Compare it to two other 1950s horror films I looked at earlier, both of which focused on women: The Leech Woman and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Each is about a woman trying to hold onto a man, and then, when she can no longer do so, punishing him by spectacularly horrible methods (pineal extraction by the Leech Woman; being thrown from a fifty-foot height by the Fifty-Foot Woman). I’ve no doubt those plots reflected an American climate in which woman were pressured into finding, and keeping, a husband. Even if, as in these two films, hubby is a louse (especially, after seeing these films, if the guy is a louse—what is it about bad choices by women in men?).
The Wasp Woman, though, is different. The title character is a business woman, played by Susan Cabot, who runs her own company, and the script doesn’t give her a romantic interest. Already that makes the film a bit offbeat. Usually business CEOs in Hollywood’s classic-era films were charmingly aggressive alpha males (how ’bout Warren William as The Wasp Man? I’m salivating already), whereas female corporate heads were Rosalind Russell in an iron-tailored suit and a neurosis. But Cabot’s character is not bonkers due to lack of a male. She’s not even searching for a mate; her focus is solely on her dwindling business. Her company is losing ground because she’s aging. She’s always used her own face to advertise her youth-preserving products; but now that her skin is sagging with lines, the company’s bottom line is also sagging. So she needs to rejuvenate her looks to increase sales. The search for youth joined with gung-ho enterprise: there’s something peculiarly, endearingly American about that.
This is where the horror, what little there is, enters. A crackpot scientist offers Cabot a youth-restoring serum done via injections of queen wasp royal jelly, and Cabot goes overboard on the hypos. She then runs around in a weird furry-bug-face get-up that’s meant to resemble a wasp but looks like something a desperate junior-high kid might have glopped together with cat fur and soggy dumplings for a last-minute Halloween costume. It’s not scary or even ewww-inducing, it just looks silly. Cabot also bites some people while spewing out, according to Wikipedia, a mouthful of chocolate syrup to suggest blood, before she’s bumped off. End of story.
The film’s not much, I’m sorry to say. I suppose cultural critics might dig up some meanings about business and beauty myths and the pressure on women to look young. But the movie doesn’t inspire me to such an analysis. Corman drags out the running time with half-baked subplots (the crackpot scientist gets hit by a car, Cabot’s secretary spies on her) until revealing the big non-shock of Cabot in her bug-eyed mask. Seeing which, I’m inclined to laugh. Mainly because the mask has these bobbling little antennae that resemble those dumb antennaed headbands I sometimes see goofy adults wearing on the street. (Usually on Sixth Avenue. Usually during Halloween.)
I’ll tell you what I find interesting about this film. It’s the poster.
One thing about cheap horror—it comes up with some fabulous posters. (Never underestimate the power of an image. Nor of a poster plastered with it.) Horror-movie posters are more than about the movies they advertise. The good ones will wrap a film’s subject around deep-seated cultural fears, those that reside in the burning lava of our societal consciousness, and then blast our eyes with it. Take, for example, the one for Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. There’s more going on than a story about a hefty dame. The poster displays what in the Eisenhower era was probably the last word in civilizational content: an interstate highway traversed by large automobiles on a systemized layout. All clean, regular, and well-planned. At least, it would be except for that gigantic, bedsheet-clad female, bestriding the roadway like a colossally berserk Barbie doll, snatching cars, panicking passengers, and sowing estrogenic chaos on a carefully man-made order. It’s the Eternal Feminine bustin’ out and taking charge, and sending the (male) drivers running for their lives. Who wouldn’t take a flying leap toward the theater box office after seeing this?
My own feeling is that The Wasp Woman‘s cult status is due not to the actual movie but more to its poster. It’s eye-catching, with a great tag-line, and it means something. Here’s another look at it:
Terrif, ain’t it? Unlike Attack of The 50-Foot Woman, The Wasp Woman‘s poster is not specific. It doesn’t depict the mid-twentieth-century breadwinner’s commute disrupted by a giantess out of the Brothers Grimm. It’s more generalized, more, how shall I put it, redolent of unspoken fantasies. Note the abstract background: it might be the misty towers of a far-away city; or it may be a tall rock face, spires of stone liquefying into golden air. It’s insubstantial, dreamlike.
But then look at what’s in the foreground—I defy you not to look at it. It’s a bug, damn it. A BIG one. What an Ewwww moment. How much more grossed out can you get than by a big bug?
Except you can. That’s no normal, nasty, buggy bug. It’s a monstrous woman-headed wasp (ever been bit by a dead wasp? I don’t recommend it). It plops itself plumb center in the frame, its wings outstretched like giant phalli, its plush abdomen adorned with a stinger. And it’s holding—no, look, it’s tenderly cradling a tiny, helpless, screaming male clad only in pajama bottoms. Beneath them the ground is strewn with bones. Oy. How can you keep looking? Except you do. It’s too horrifying not to. You’re transfixed by this mix of images, of mother love and castration trauma and anthropophagy, all wrapped up in oversize Hymenoptera. Ewwwww. Some really muddy psychological waters must have been stirred up by this picture…
You must all be glancing sideways at each other by now, wondering what’s with GOM and this wacky placard. I admit, I have quirky tastes. But, jeez, I love this poster. That big lady-bug with the madonna face and her infantilized victim—what a Freudian lure that must have been for audiences. How can you resist something so deliciously perverse? It beelines to a collective cultural unconscious nightmare that puddles together dank, inarticulate fears about strong women, feeble men, and female-dominated societies (which include insect colonies). Whoever designed it was a marketing genius. I’d have gone to see the film based on that poster alone. Afterwards, I’d have been disappointed, of course—in no way does the movie live up to its advertising. But I’d at least have had a visual revelation.
My advice to that store on Sixth Avenue: Ditch the skull. Get a giant lady-headed wasp instead. Stick on a miniaturized male, and you just may lure me into your premises. Really.
You can watch a pretty good print of The Wasp Woman by clicking here. It’s utterly in the public domain.