Why do we like horror and monster movies that routinely get labeled as ‘bad?’ Because many of them have great story ideas and look at the world from odd, warped viewpoints. Back when ‘warped’ wasn’t a prerequisite for ALL filmed entertainment (my exaggeration) this murderous rejuvenation tale could be appreciated as something unusual, even quirky. Jeez, the characters are even nastier than the people I know! Lovely Coleen Gray takes a chance on a downmarket Universal programmer and proves how well she can carry a movie, even through several dubious horror make-ups.
The Leech Woman
1960 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 77 min. / Street Date August 27, 2019 / Available from Scream Factory
Starring: Coleen Gray, Grant Williams, Phillip Terry, Gloria Talbott, John Van Dreelen, Estelle Hemsley, Kim Hamilton, Arthur Batanides, Murray Alper, Paul Thompson.
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Film Editor: Milton Carruth
Original Music: Irving Gertz
Written by David Duncan, story by Ben Pivar, Francis Rosenwald
Produced by Joseph Gershenson
Directed by Edward Dein
Of all the promising starlets of the late ‘forties, Coleen Gray takes the prize for appearing in the most interesting classics without becoming a first-class star. She’s great in the noirs Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley, The Sleeping City and Kansas City Confidential. She’s unforgettably tragic in Red River and unforgettably pitiful in Kubrick’s The Killing. But most of the rest are lesser westerns, TV work and a trio of odd horror/sci-fi pix. She has a reasonable part in the modest The Vampire, but our best advice for the dismal Phantom Planet is to steer clear.
The Leech Woman is a case unto itself. Author Tom Weaver identifies it as the last (and a lesser) entry in the third wave of Universal studio horror films, a budget-challenged, no-frills rejuvenation fantasy pre-planned as a disposable second feature. He asserts that it’s mostly a waste of time — except for the pleasure of admiring Coleen Gray’s performance. I second the nomination for Ms. Gray, as an actress who carries the full weight of a dubious show and makes everyone look good. I must like the movie quite a bit — I’ve seen it several times, when once was enough for Curse of the Undead and The Thing that Couldn’t Die.
The project reportedly began with the unappealing title The Leech, making us wonder if somebody at Universal had just come from a screening of The Fly and searched an encyclopedia for another unappetizing wonder of nature. I believe writer David Duncan’s claim that he reorganized a bad screenplay in just two weeks, but have no idea from where he sourced the film’s consistent pre-feminist undertone. The basic idea of The Leech Woman would be offensively misogynist if the movie were more naturalistic. The main theme about women and aging is stated so bluntly that we have to pay attention. To what degree are they a gross distortion of reality?
With its bleak view of relationships the show resembles one of those films noir in which most every cast member ends up a murder victim. Out of six major characters we have two murderous women, one male eager to use his wife as a guinea pig, two weak and foolish men, and one more female who might be likable if she weren’t just as willing to kill for what she wants.
The unforgiving storyline subordinates each 1.5 dimensional character to a basic human desire. Endocrinologist Dr. Paul Talbot (Philip Terry) and his forty-ish wife June (Coleen Gray) are in a mutually hateful relationship. Paul is repulsed by a few wrinkles; June is convinced that she’s worthless if she can’t be seductive. Then Paul’s nurse Sally (Gloria Talbott) admits a fascinating patient. Malla (Estelle Hemsley) is a tiny, withered black woman who wants to exchange the rejuvenation secret of her tribe in Africa for a return passage back home. Paul and June follow Malla to Africa, picking up jungle guide Bertram Garvay (John Van Dreelen) on the way. June is further demoralized to learn that Paul doesn’t want her younger To rekindle his marriage, but only to make a scientific discovery. Bertram just wants to share in the financial reward of a rejuvenation breakthrough.
After a couple of incidents on safari, the trio are captured by Malla’s tribe. Have they been tricked? No, Malla demonstrates the efficacy of a ritual that involves a strange powder called nipé and a hooked ring. When struck on the back of a man’s neck, the ring extracts the second ingredient, pineal fluid. It also kills the male fluid donor. Malla is transformed into a young beauty (Kim Hamilton of Odds Against Tomorrow). Instead of preaching about the miracle, Malla repeats her pronouncement that life is cruelly unfair to women: men retain dignity and respect in old age, while women are devalued and discarded as soon as the wrinkles arrive. She tells June that the effect of the rejuvenation ritual will last only for a limited time. She’ll also have to pick the male victim to contribute the needed pineal fluid.
Movies about rejuvenation fantasies are usually straightforward. People make themselves younger via a pact with the devil, or perhaps by stealing ‘life-force’ from another person. The Leech Woman follows the second path, with a mechanism for youth worked out as cleverly as a classic fable. In most stories the secret of youth is held by one person, who must hide his rejuvenation crimes from others. In this tale, three people know of Malla’s magic ritual. Each has a separate selfish agenda. Depending on the breaks, each is willing to sacrifice the other two.
June pays no heed to Malla’s warnings. In the escape from the African village Bertram gets away with only a single tobacco pouch of the all-important nipé. June can’t expect to maintain her magic youthfulness indefinitely. The little hook-ring might be good for lancing a boil, but it’s a stretch to believe that June’s ring-punch strikes home with each wild gesture. June really ought to try out for a sport — when a man tries to strangle her, she still scores a bull’s eye on his pineal gland.
The misanthropy is so pervasive, we can’t fully brand the story as misogynistic. June is less a victim than a deranged dissident raging against a negative interpretation of The Human Condition for Women. Most of us accept growing old simply because we have no choice. The aging process on view is absurd: the ‘unattractive’ June Talbot is obviously just wearing unflattering makeup. The magic hormonal transformation is basically a hair, face and hands makeover. It works because this is Movie Logic Time and, gee whiz, Coleen Gray is drop-dead gorgeous. So gorgeous that Red River lost me the moment John Wayne left the ready & eager Coleen behind on the wagon train. Any cowboy that stupid deserves to be devoured by his own cows.
I think that film critic Raymond Durgnat would have liked Leech Woman. In his essay Paradox Cut Paradox, Durgnat discusses the narrative ironies that make fables like Samson and Delilah so compelling. Malla and June see men as the enemy. Yet June’s entire existence begins and ends with attracting men. She wants to be worshipped by lovers, and also to dominate them. Dumbbell scientist-husband Paul doesn’t mind losing June, should Malla’s crazy potion kill her instead of making her younger. But he doesn’t realize that the tribe is a magic matriarchy — the men obey Malla, and sacrifice each other to rejuvenate her. An observant feminist would note that the ritual ring corrects nature’s sex-role imbalance, with a reversal of the sex act. The woman penetrates the man, stealing both his life-force and his life. [To me this theory is valid — it makes as much sense as the cinema-psychology that equates knife-stabs with sex penetration.]
June ignores Malla’s admonition that the potion is meant to be a one-time thing, to permit a youthful fling before death. The materialistic June wants to stay young indefinitely, even if it means a future of killing men. The movie’s exaggerated logic proposes that Old Age has no value. Youth and vitality are everything — feelings and ethics mean nothing.
Are predatory women a false stereotype? Writers have certainly relied on the materialistic opportunist that moves from man to man, marriage to marriage, trying to remain desirable while seeking out the rich guy who’ll provide ultimate security. Social and cultural insecurity has always been exploited by products that claims to prolong or recover youth. June wants to turn Malla’s sacred ritual into a swingin’ lifestyle.
The Invisible Man’s elixir transformed him into a power-mad megalomaniac. The same thing happens to June Talbot. Fresh off the plane, she seduces the first good-looking man she sees, Neil Foster (second-billed Grant Williams), right in front of his fianceé. The pleasure of shoving Sally aside is just a side benefit. When June trolls for victims outside a bar, she fails to pick up a happy lush (Murray Alper) but succeeds in attracting the hot-to-trot Jerry (Arthur Batanides of The Unearthly). Back in darkest Africa, Malla showed June how to solve two problems with one killing. Now June seems poised to become a Female Avenger. She uses her pearls and bankroll as bait for Jerry. She can score more days of youth AND rid the world of yet another male scumbag. Win – Win.
Maybe the sad part is that June Talbot never even gets a chance to swing. The only survivor in this annihilating melodrama is the stupid Neil, and judging by his behavior, he wasn’t going to be faithful to Sally anyway. Yes, The Leech Woman is a movie about a crazy lady who gets a hold of a silly youth serum — but it’s also about the new post-war America in which more people, and more women, have more options than ever before. The lures and illusions of an increasingly materialist society can be seductive. Some will ignore the rules and exploit relationships to take what they want from life, in school, in business, and at home, too. That’s the show’s message, even if it’s unconscious.
One cool aspect of The Leech Woman is the way it upends a racial stereotype. Estelle Hemsley’s Malla is in charge at all times. She manipulates Paul to get what she wants, and ‘liberates’ June knowing full well that the neurotic American woman will abuse the miracle of the nipé and seal her own doom. Ms. Hemsley’s casting is terrific; she was 72 during filming, but Universal’s makeup folk make her look as desiccated and leathery as a mummy. By contrast, Coleen Gray’s makeup falls short. Her exaggerated ‘normal’ at 45 isn’t particularly convincing. When we see her ‘youth-ified,’ we’re not thinking about The Fountain of Youth but how much difference good makeup can make (and just how pretty she is). In later stages June Talbot is cursed with not-so-hot rubber wrinkles. The job done to her hands is impressive, but the aging effect stops abruptly at her wrists. The last time we see June, we’re looking at an actual old woman, whose chest heaves even though she’s not supposed to be breathing. Maybe producer Gershenson got that idea from the use of a real elderly woman to play a dead vampire for Horror of Dracula.
The compromises of other Universal budget fantasies could be really depressing. The soundstage jungle here isn’t all that bad, but the inter-cut stock footage reminds us of Jungle Jim or Bomba the Jungle Boy. The rest of the movie sandwiches various rooms and an office corridor between more stock shots. The street with the bar is fairly minimal, and June’s lover’s lane encounter with Jerry places her car in front of a crude painted backdrop.
The bottom line is that these details don’t matter. We remain interested in what these unpleasant characters will do next, and the great Coleen Gray is a kick to watch at all times. It had to be fun work compared to things like The Vampire, where her receptionist answers phones while waiting to be carried off by a monster in the last reel. June Talbot is a supremely active protagonist. She gets to wax bitter and hateful. She gets her marriage hopes lifted and then dashed. After a sweet revenge, she gets to indulge a female Casanova / lethal Borgia fantasy, all the way to a violent finish. June Talbot is a more developed character than either Susan Cabot’s Janice Starling in The Wasp Woman, or Mari Blanchard’s Kyra Zelas in She-Devil.
Like many overreachers, June trips on her own schemes and essentially defeats herself. Had June been a monster fan she might have been saved by remembering the bit about a vampire accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of blood, in Roger Corman’s movie Not of This Earth.
A parting note about an unintentional (?) joke in the movie’s poster, displayed on the cover of this disc: right below the text line reading, ‘She Drained Men of their Loves and Lives!’ is an image of John Van Dreelen literally going ‘down the drain.’ ↑ I’ve always found that to be funny. I guess John is lucky that the tag line didn’t read, ‘She Really Knew How to Put her Man In a Pickle!’
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Leech Woman is a crisp, neat and spotless encoding of this minor pleasure — you know, a horror movie about toxic relationships. Yes, those sets look a little on the cheap side but the lighting of cameraman Ellis Carter (The Incredible Shrinking Man) is attractive.
For a commentary, Scream tapped the right man for the job. Tom Weaver has been collecting info from this specific vein of movie knowledge for going on forty years. He says that the show’s original production papers no longer exist, so we don’t get his usual rundown on on exactly what was shot when, and which crew members were on the call sheets for individual scenes. But we’re offered plenty of relevant facts, like what Universal movie directed by André De Toth was sourced for the several minutes of jungle action stock shots, and which Douglas Sirk melodrama provided the sets that Leech Woman reused to save money.
Tom also points out something I never noticed before: an early shot in Dr. Talbot’s lab goes on for minutes without a cut. It’s not as brilliant as Orson Welles’ long take in the apartment in Touch of Evil, but it’s not dull, either. I’ll bet director Dein used that clever shot to talk himself into subsequent jobs… one take, six pages of script finished!
Tom invites David Schecter on board to discuss the music, and Alan Rode steps in for a few minutes to offer his fond memories of actress Kim Hamilton. Weaver regrets missing an opportunity to debrief the interesting Edward Dein about his full career, but he did talk with Coleen Gray on several occasions. About ten minutes of the commentary is given over to Tom’s file audio of research phone calls with Ms. Gray. She sounds like a really fun person, making jokes about old age (in the movie and in real life) and sharing candid memories of what working on a show like this was like. If she didn’t have deep conversations with her co-star Grant Williams it was because, as working actors, they were expected to jump into the set ready to perform, not sit around socializing.
Tom loves these movies as much as any of us but also lets us know which ones he thinks are sub-par. If I have a soft spot for Leech Woman it is because I discovered it at a time when genre-oriented film journals were becoming politicized. At UCLA we had a group of Women on Film advocates that were assertive and vocal — I remember one of my animation projects being criticized for negative stereotypes, as if I had offended the PC Gods. I’ve read at least two feminist articles by writers eager to demonstrate that sexual oppression could spring full-blown from quickie monster movies. Face it, the women were right — a show like this one was conceived, written, performed and wrapped up so quickly, that any number of so-called unconscious messages could ESCAPE to menace the moviegoing public.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Leech Woman
Supplements: Commentary by Tom Weaver, with David Schecter, Alan Rode, and (the recorded voice of) Coleen Gray.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 1, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson