Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Leech Woman (1960)

The Leech Woman is a sci-fi/horror B-movie that manages to be just a little better than you might expect. It was made by Universal in 1960 and gave Coleen Gray one of her few starring roles, and also one of her more interesting roles.

Dr Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) is a scientist. He’s not the world’s greatest scientist but he is ambitious, and he’s not held back by any moral scruples. He’s particularly interested in older women - because older women would like to be young again and they would be prepared to pay a great deal of money for anything that could achieve that objective. Dr Talbot happens to be married to June, a woman somewhat older than himself. He doesn’t love her. He doesn’t even like her. But she is a convenient guinea pig and since she’s crazy about him it isn’t difficult to persuade her to play that role. June Talbot (Coleen Gray) would desperately like to be young again but she doesn’t expect her husband’s researches to come to anything. In the meantime, faced with a husband who clearly despises her, she takes solace from the bottle. She takes a lot of solace from the bottle.

Then a very old African woman arrives at Dr Talbot’s office. She proves to be very very old indeed. In fact she’s over 150 years old, a fact verified to Dr Talbot (how he verifies this fact is one of a number of holes in the plot).

This woman, Malla, not only claims that her tribe has the secret to longevity - she also claims they possess the secret to restoring youth. No surprisingly Dr Talbot is soon making plans to go to Africa to find Mala’s tribe and to get hold of this secret which he expects will make him a very rich man. He has to patch things up with June because he’ll need her as a guinea pig. They engage an experienced guide, Bertram Garvay (John Van Dreelen), and set off into the heart of Africa. Well of course it’s actually a sound stage with some stock footage not very adroitly added to give it the vague appearance of Africa.

They find Mala’s tribe, and Malla as well. And yes, the tribe really does possess the means of restoring youth. Unfortunately there are complications. Not very pleasant complications.

That’s the first half of the film. The second half brings June back to the United States and with her youth restored. Only there are more complications. Even more unpleasant ones. Maybe the secret of eternal youth is one of those things that should remain a secret.

You expect a movie like this to have a villain. This one has a multiplicity of villains. In fact every major character is, to a certain extent, a villain. These are not very nice people. They’re people who would slit your throat to get what they want from life. Villains tend to offer fine opportunities for entertaining acting pyrotechnics and the cast in this movie make the most of those opportunities. Phillip Terry gives a marvellously over-the-top performance as the appalling Dr Talbot, a real swine of the first water. John Van Dreelen as the safari guide Garvay is just as vicious. Grant Williams as the weak-willed lawyer Neil Foster is not exactly a moral paragon either. And Malla, whether young or old, is pretty much a monster as well. Even Neil’s girlfriend Sally (Gloria Talbott), the one major character who isn’t totally reprehensible, is a rather spiky and insanely jealous character.

June Talbot is as evil as any of them but the role does give Coleen Gray a terrific opportunity to show her talents as an actress. She has to play June as ageing and bitter, and also as young and glamorous and deadly. She also has to play the role mostly in very unglamorous and at times quite heavy makeup. June is evil, but she’s evil in more complex ways than the other characters and Gray really is quite impressive.

Edward Dein had a fairly limited career as a director but that career does include the truly bizarre but fascinating Shack Out On 101 (1955), which demonstrates his affinity for outré subject matter. He keeps the pacing pleasingly taut and overall he handles proceedings fairly well.

The plot twists are unlikely to cause any great surprises but that’s not necessarily a major flaw in a horror movie.

If the movie has a theme it is this - if someone suddenly has the opportunity to gain what they most ardently desire just how high a price will they be prepared to pay for it? Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, just how high a price will they be prepared to make others pay to allow them to gain it? In this movie the answer is that no price is too high. These people may be monstrous but they’re monstrous in entertaining ways and the lack of a sympathetic hero character really isn’t a major problem.

This movie is among the five that comprise Universal’s bargain-priced Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2. The anamorphic transfer looks terrific.

The Leech Woman is a fairly well-executed B-movie that might not deliver too many genuine scares but it does have its creepy moments, and the ruthlessness of the characters can be rather frightening. Coleen Gray’s performance is a highlight, along with Philip Terry’s scenery-chewing villainy. 

Thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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