The Wasp Woman (1995): A Sting in the Tale

Matty looks back at Jim Wynorski’s snazzy remake of a classic Corman B(ee)-movie. 

The admittedly very — very — good Not of This Earth (1988) might be Jim Wynorski’s best known remake of a Roger Corman flick, but it’s his 1995 overhaul of THE WASP WOMAN that’s superior.

Having cut his teeth under Corman’s tutelage, Wynorski’s Not of This Earth came about as a friendly wager between him and his mentor. Happening upon a 35mm print of the 1957 original, the Chopping Mall (1986) maestro bet Corman that he could remake the film on the same twelve day schedule and the same budget, albeit adjusted for inflation. And that’s exactly what Wynorski did. The result was a massive financial hit. Powered by the infamy of its star, Traci Lords, transitioning from her controversial XXX career to legitimate fare, Not of This Earth ‘88 rocked video store tills. 

Following its boffo small screen box office, Wynorski pitched Corman another two remake ideas. One was a contemporary riff on Not of This Earth 1.0’s ol’ double bill partner, Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). Corman wasn’t sold — and, as of this writing, remains that way despite Wynorski repeatedly trying to persuade him otherwise in the intervening years. The other was a sprucing of The Wasp Woman (1959). Again, Corman wasn’t especially keen. The B-movie legend had already dismissed Fred Olen Ray when he circled the property’s remake rights a few years earlier, causing Ray to assemble his own rogue version, Evil Spawn (1987), in a move of brilliantly belligerent protest. However, for reasons known only to Corman, he was now slightly more open to doing a new Wasp Woman than he was an Attack of the Crab Monsters and the Concorde-New Horizons boss agreed to give Wynorski first dibs on the project should he ever greenlight it. The call finally came as Wynorski noodled on Virtual Desire (1995): a softcore slot-filler that he left mid-way through production in order to pursue his dream project [1]. 

Wynorski’s rationale for his sexed-up interpretation of The Wasp Woman was remarkably pure. Like his spin on Not of This Earth, the helmer simply wanted to pay homage to the man who gave him his start. Wynorski was also a massive fan of Corman’s classic cheapie — but he’d always thought that its stunning poster, which depicted a large wasp with a woman’s head attached to it, promised a title creature far greater than the actual film delivered. As such, his immediate concern was giving The Wasp Woman a cool-looking monster.

In the finished film, he succeeds without question.

Dumping the Fly (1958)-esque mask n’ gloves of the original, Wynorski’s buzzing broad is a magnificent sight that encapsulates the film’s aesthetic and tone. Foremost, it’s the heart of The Wasp Woman’s comic book sheen. Designed, created, and partially puppeted and played by Greg Aronowitz (the Corman-produced The Unborn (1991)), this monumental twelve-foot beast is the apex visual in an eye-catching offering where almost every deliciously composed shot, every robustly fashioned set, and every well-selected location could serve as a dynamic splash panel [2]. Secondly, the monster’s highly sexualised presentation — from its perversely inviting mandibles and heaving, Wynorski-favoured bosom; to a pair of curvaceous hips that cascade down into an equally shapely derrière-cum-stinger — lend it an air of grotesque sensuality that calls to mind the psychosexual potency of H.R. Giger.

In that regard, The Wasp Woman is a ferocious erotic nightmare, perched in similar terrain to Wynorski’s preceding steamy scare-shows, The Haunting of Morella (1990) and Sorceress (1995). Their explorations of Wynorski’s recurring themes, though, were supernaturally footed. Here, it’s mad science that provides Wynorski with his springboard, encouraging a semi-serious clinicism as he works through his go-to topics of control, identity, and obsession, as well as the additional notions of ageism, mortality, and objectification that line Danielle Purcell and Guy Prevost’s knowing yet surprisingly meditative screenplay. That said, The Wasp Woman’s indictment of those who treat women as meat, represented on screen by a spread of piggish and conniving men (chiefly, those essayed by Gerrit Graham and Wynorski regulars Jay Richardson, Richard Gabai, and Lenny Juliano), is slightly contradicted by Wynorski occasionally ogling at his female supporting cast (Corman mainstay Maria Ford and Wynorski stalwarts Julie K. Smith, Antonia Dorian, Kimberley Roberts, and Melissa Brasselle). But hey — what’s a Wynorski joint without babes and the odd frat-boy/brickie wolf-whistle? Sure, his gaze is boob-centric, but the women that dominate Wynorski’s output invariably cultivate the strongest and most interesting characters; and in The Wasp Woman, it’s the perpetually excellent Brasselle who shines brightest as a memorable, shaded, and real-seeming person.

Less believable, alas, is The Wasp Woman’s lead, Jennifer Rubin. Inheriting the Susan Cabot role, the A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) favourite is Janice Starlin: the aging face of a floundering cosmetics company whose attempts to regain her youth take a body-morphing turn when she begins chugging a rejuvenating serum developed from wasp hormones.

While the talented Rubin runs the full spectrum of emotions with her pathos-strewn arc, she’s The Wasp Woman’s sole frustration. She just doesn’t quite convince in the film’s early stages, when Starlin is supposed to be forty-five, and you can’t help but feel a more seasoned actress would have been better suited, at least for its first third. Incidentally, Rubin’s casting was a bone of contention for Wynorski. She was mandated by Corman and The Wasp Woman’s co-backers, Saban Entertainment offshoot Libra Pictures. A handful of unverifiable rumours since have suggested that Wynorski had wanted to cast either Brasselle, his Deathstalker II (1987) and Sorceress collaborator Toni Naples, or — tantalisingly — both of them and have Brasselle and Naples split the part a la Jessica Dublin and Vivian Lanko in Brian Thomas-Jones’ Wasp Woman variation, Rejuvenator (1988). And at the risk of veering into tabloid gossip, worse is the fact that Rubin was allegedly a massive pain in the arse to deal with behind the scenes. Apparently, The Wasp Woman’s crew nicknamed her “The Velvet Steamroller” (a nickname previously given to the prickly Marlo Thomas on the set of her sitcom That Girl) and neither Rubin nor Wynorski got along. Generally pretty forthright, Wynorski has remained curiously tight-lipped on the subject; conversely, Rubin once described The Wasp Woman as “the worst set [she’d] ever been on” and called Wynorski “despicable”. For what it’s worth, Wynorski has his stock company of actors and a pile of frequent technicians; Rubin has rarely worked with the same person twice. 

Lensed in twenty days, The Wasp Woman was mounted as an entry in Showtime’s Roger Corman Presents series and premiered within the strand as its eighth episode on 29th August 1995. In an amusing twist of fate, episode nine was another remake of Not of This Earth, this time shepherded by Corman’s The Nest (1988) and Bloodfist (1989) director, Terence H. Winkless. It’s fun…

But nowhere near Wynorski’s Wasp Woman or, indeed, his iteration of Earth [3].

[1] And who did Wynorski get to replace him? None other than his pal, the aforementioned Fred Olen Ray. The pair of them would be credited on Virtual Desire as ‘Noble Henri’, marking the first use of a pseudonym that they and Virtual Desire’s producer, Andrew Stevens, have all employed since. Fittingly, Ray cameos in Wynorski’s Wasp Woman.
[2] Kudos to cinematographer Mike Mickens and Corman’s then in-house production designer, NAVA. In addition to an exciting and dramatic finale that takes place in the oft-used Bronson Caves, hawks will recognise several sets and locations from Fred Olen Ray’s Cyberzone (1995), Turi Meyer’s Sleepstalker (1995), and Bradford May’s DTV Darkman (1990) sequels, The Return of Durant (1995) and Die Darkman Die (1996).
[3] Related: episode ten was a remake of A Bucket of Blood (1959), episode twelve a remake of Piranha (1978), episode twenty-one a remake of Humanoids From the Deep (1980), and episode twenty-three was Wynorski’s adaptation of Vampirella (1996).

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