The Leech Woman: A fun Sci-Fi/Horror outing with a surprising feminist subtext
Coleen Gray, who passed away this week at the age of 92, was an actress best known for her work in the film noir genre, but did dabble on occasion in the sci-fi and horror fields. Here is a review of one of her more sci-fi/horror-oriented projects, the cult item known as The Leech Woman (1960).
On a recent TCM special presentation entitled Cruel Beauty, four great actresses of the film noir genre — Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter, Jane Greer and Coleen Gray — were brought together for a fascinating discussion of this most American of cinematic contributions. And in the case of Nebraska-born Coleen Gray, her credentials for inclusion were impeccable, having previously starred in such noir classics as Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley, Kansas City Confidential and The Killing. But noir, of course, wasn’t the only film genre to which Coleen lent her considerable skills. In 1957, she appeared in the difficult-to-see American film The Vampire (not to be confused with the 1957 Mexican film entitled The Vampire!) and, three years later, played what almost might be considered three roles in The Leech Woman. Released in May 1960, the film in question turns out to be a hugely entertaining and well-acted bit of hokum from Universal Studios; one that, despite its lampooning on an MST3K episode, holds up very nicely today.
In the film, Coleen plays the part of June Talbot, the embittered, rich, alcoholic wife of endocrinologist Paul Talbot (played with nasty verve by Phillip Terry). The unhappy couple is on the verge of divorce when Malla, a woman who looks more like a mummy and who claims to be 152 years old (an excellent performance here from Estelle Hemsley), arrives in Talbot’s office with a sample of a substance called “nipe,” which she claims has been prolonging her life. Spurred to overriding curiosity, Paul convinces June to go on an expedition with him to Tanganyika, where, Malla says, the substance originates; what’s more, the nipe, when combined with another substance, supposedly has the power to also REVERSE the aging process! Thus, in the film’s first half, the Talbots do journey to deepest, darkest Africa on their quest, assisted by guide Bertram Garvay (John van Dreelen, a kind of poor man’s George Sanders). The men, unfortunately, do not survive the journey, thanks to June’s machinations. In the picture’s second half, June — having been rejuvenated by the nipe combined with the pineal secretions extracted via a particularly nasty finger ring — pretends to be her fictitious niece “Terry,” in an effort to steal her hunky-dude lawyer Neil Foster (Grant Williams, who many will recall from the 1957 sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man) away from his fiancée Sally (Gloria Talbott, whose list of horror credits is almost as impressive as her sweater profile, including as it does Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Cyclops and, most especially, I Married a Monster From Outer Space). But trouble soon looms, when June’s youthful appearance reverts to an even more aged one than before, requiring her to secure pineal secretions with greater frequency…
In a film with surprisingly many features to commend to potential viewers’ attention, for me, the most outstanding are the makeup effects by Bud Westmore on both Coleen and Ms. Hemsley. Coleen, who was only 38 when she made this film, looks convincingly dowdy when we first encounter her June Talbot character; a nice-looking woman gone to seed. It is only after June is rejuvenated by the nipe do we remember what a stunning-looking actress Coleen was, and indeed, I have never seen her look better. But even more impressive are the makeup FX on Malla, who truly resembles a desiccated mummy when we first see her, her face a prunelike mass of corrugations and wrinkles. Not since Jack Pierce’s work on Boris Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy has a human visage looked so convincingly ancient!
But the film has lots more to offer than just expert makeup. Director Edward Dein (who had helmed the notorious cowboy/vampire hybrid Curse of the Undead a year earlier) manages to bring his film in tautly (the entire affair runs to only 77 minutes), while the lensing of DOP Ellis W. Carter (who had previously shot, in 1956 and ’57 alone, such sci-fi/horror classics as The Mole People, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Deadly Mantis, The Land Unknown AND The Monolith Monsters!) keeps things nice and moody. The film features some of the wildest and most frenzied native dancing that this viewer has ever seen (including that in 1933’s King Kong), and that (studio-shot) African ambiance is further enhanced by the seemingly obligatory stock footage of elephants, monkeys, antelopes, lions, snakes, crocodiles, hippos, a charging leopard, and jungle birds that squawk “ooo ooo, ah ah ah ah !”
Any number of memorable scenes crop up, my favorite being the one in which June stabs Garvay in the neck with that fanged ring as he slowly sinks into a quicksand pool. Surprisingly, the film can also be viewed as having a feminist subtext, best expressed by cronelike Malla, when she declares that men only grow more dignified with age, while older women are cast aside and have nothing. And indeed, the three men who June does away with in this film (Paul, Garvay and, back home, a con man played by Arthur Batanides, who many will recall from the classic Star Trek episode “That Which Survives”) had all tried to exploit her, or rejected her when her beauty faded, or tried to steal from her (even Sally, who is shockingly exterminated by June toward the film’s end, had held her at gunpoint). This sympathetic viewpoint — of the unfortunate plight of the aging, no longer conventionally beautiful woman — is a fairly enlightened one, and helps to lift the film a few notches higher. But basically, The Leech Woman just wants to entertain, and at that, it succeeds marvelously. And Coleen Gray, whether playing it dowdy or beautiful, as June or as Terry, is responsible in large part for the film’s success…