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Monday, October 29, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 29: THE LEECH WOMAN (1960)

Like many of the monster-kids of my age who grew up in the Tri-State area, I got my education in horror movies from the local TV stations' numerous showcases for such fare, and THE LEECH WOMAN was a minor offering that seemed to run every other month on WOR Channel 9 (and maybe it actually did), and for reasons that I could not explain at the time I watched it every time I saw it in the TV listings. It's a very late entry in Universal's parade of horror stories and was well past the classic era of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man by the time it hit screens, and it did not contain some other-than-human monster ravaging the Carpathian mountains. Instead it mostly took place in all-too-recognizable/relatable 1960 America and dealt in a horror that all of us understand all too well, the impotent dread of growing old, particularly the perceived female perspective on that inevitability. It's a "little" shocker, but its fantastical/horrible elements become easier to fully relate to with each birthday that I live to see...

Paul (Phillip Terry) and June (Coleen Gray): Can you say "dysfunction?"

Playing like some TWILIGHT ZONE story set during the Rat Pack era, the story introduces us to one of the most dysfunctional couples in cinema this side of George and Martha (of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? infamy), endocrinologist Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) and his wealthy, decade-older-and-not-aging-well wife, June (Coleen Gray). June has attempted plastic surgery in order to re-kindle her husband's interest in her, but to no avail, and both booze it up as often as possible, trading vicious barbs with by-now-routine vitriol that practically drips from the screen. June stays with her toweringly insensitive asshole of a spouse out of a pathetic need to be loved (she somehow still harbors a shred of love for the guy, despite his incredibly verbally abusive treatment of her), while her husband stays with her for her wealth and because — how sick is this? — he genuinely enjoys having her around so she can hate him and he can have someone to hate right back at. You can just tell that Paul would ditch June in a heartbeat if a younger prospect and a way to become independently wealthy came along (preferably one that would allow him to exploit the insecurities of aging women), but since that's not happening he finally tells June to have her lawyer draw up divorce papers. But the answer to his prayers unexpectedly arrives in the form of Malla (Estelle Hemsley), an exceedingly ancient black woman who drops by his office in need of a checkup before a final return trip to her tribal home in Africa. Following the call to her lawyer, Neil Foster (Grant Williams of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN fame), June encounters Malla in the office's waiting room and ends up on the receiving end of Malla's eerie and ominous statement that June will not need to divorce her husband because he will soon die and his death will offer her a new way of life. Needless to say, that conversation freaks June out big-time.

Malla (Estelle Hemsley): a 152-year-old living impossibility.

As the doctor examines her, Malla explains that she is 152 years old and was sold into slavery as a child, stolen along with her mother from her village by an Arab slaver and branded. For years she believed her people had died out but now she has heard that they still survive, somewhere deep in the jungle, and she needs money to afford her return trip. To facilitate this, she offers Paul the secret of her unnatural longevity, which amounts to the secret of eternal youth. Malla's legacy from her mother is a few remaining pinches of a hormone powder that keeps her alive indefinitely when taken on its own, but when properly administered by one of the high priests of her tribe, the powder is combined with another substance known only to the priests, and that combination actually restores the user to a state of vital, vibrant youth. Paul dismisses Malla's story as so much bullshit, until she downs a bit of the powder with some water, after which she tells Paul to examine her again to see that her claims are true. Convinced after a second examination, an excited Paul hears cash registers as he launches an expedition to Africa that trails Malla back to her people, with June in tow, having convinced her of the hormone's efficacy and luring her by making it seem as though he realizes he really loves her and that the trip will save their marriage. Hiring a seasoned tracker (John Van Dreelen) to lead the quest, Paul and company set off in search of the hormone powder's source and the second secret ingredient that will reverse the aging process. During the trek, Paul ceases to be civil to June, and June finally realizes that Paul only wanted her along as a guinea pig who could tell him how she feels after her youth is restored. With that realization, plus the fact that she has no choice but to complete the journey into the unknown, June's illusions are irrevocably shattered and her long-held hatred reaches the boiling point...

Upon finding Malla's hidden village, the outsiders are instantly captured and sentenced to death for violating the tribe's privacy, but before their execution they are allowed to witness Malla's rejuvenation into hotness (Kim Hamilton). The catch is that whomever is restored to full youth is allowed only one night in that state, a night in which they can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for one final time before they are ritually put to death. That's bad enough, but the white folks discover to their horror that the secret ingredient is fluid fatally extracted from the pineal gland of a living human victim. Anyway, the young Malla offers the condemned June a dose of the youth serum and tells her that she must choose the donor. Faster than you can say "Bye-bye, asshole," June names Paul as the lucky sacrifice, and finds herself once more a hot young thang. Overcome by greed upon seeing the proof of the serum's power, the tracker convinces June to escape with him so they can share the riches the stolen secret will surely bring, but June's youth proves short-lived as she begins to once again age and even surpass her previous normal middle age, her body heading straight into living, mummy-like decrepitude. Revolted by June's sudden reversal of hotness, the tracker makes to abandon June in the woods, but he ends up on the receiving end of pineal fluid extraction after falling into quicksand. 

Once more rejuvenated, June makes her way back to the States and moves back into the house she shared with Paul, passing herself off as her own niece, "Terry Hart." She tells her lawyer that her "aunt" will be along later, and the lawyer finds himself drooling over the toothsome Terry, which does not sit at all well with his fiancee, Sally (Gloria Talbott), who used to be the deceased Paul's assistant. But the hormone's effects require fresh pineal juice in order to work and June's visible aging becomes ever more horrific, which facilitates an old and veiled June going out cruising for sleazy victims. As you can probably guess, none of this ends well for anyone involved.

From pathetic drunken doormat to serial murderer.

Silly title aside, THE LEECH WOMAN has a lot to say about unhealthy relationships, crippling lack of self-esteem, the perceived diminished "worth" of women when they are no longer in the bloom of youth, and the corrupting dangers of getting exactly what one wishes for, all of which allows the narrative to be surprisingly deep in content for what is at heart a garden variety B-movie. We witness June devolve from a pathetic drunken doormat into a creepy gland-vampire who will commit unholy acts in order to hold on to her youth and beauty, and it's truly tragic to witness that progression. All shreds of sympathy that we had for her vanish the moment June returns to America and begins her double life, becoming an even more foul creature than her late husband was, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Looking at it with the benefit of having seen it multiple times over a period of thirty-five years (including its memorable treatment on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000), I may be over-analyzing THE LEECH WOMAN, so don't necessarily approach it thinking you'll be getting something along the lines of Edward Albee gene-spliced with Rod Serling. With that in mind, it's a brisk and very solid seventy-seven minutes that will give the viewer much to ponder when June meets her inevitable sorry fate.

Original theatrical release poster.

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