The Leech Woman (1960)

*. The Leech Woman is a terrible movie. In its own ridiculous way, however, it is kind of interesting.
*. The premise derives from a timeless archetype. Dr. Paul Talbot is sick of his alcoholic, aging wife June (Coleen Gray). While he despises her boozing, one gets the sense that what he really can’t abide is her getting old on him. “Old women give me the creeps!” he explains to his assistant when a withered crone named Malla appears at his endocrinology clinic.
*. Malla, as chance would have it, knows the secret of eternal youth. Intrigued, Dr. Talbot heads off to Africa to check it out, taking June along as a guinea pig. She is appalled, but then figures she will get even with him by using the hormones from his pineal gland to make herself young (this, being mixed with a powder called nipe that comes from the pollen of a rare orchid, is the elixir of youth). Hard cheese for Paul, as he dies in the process of being tapped. But as for June, she “will have beauty and revenge at the same time.”
*. So we have the woman who loses her looks and is scorned then getting her own back thanks to some weird magic before becoming totally undone at the end. As Malla observes, it’s the old double standard at work: “For a man old age has rewards. If he is wise his grey hairs bring dignity and he’s treated with honour and respect. But for the aged woman there is nothing. At best she’s pitied. More often, her lot is of contempt and neglect.”
*. Also archetypal is the idea that June can only rejuvenate herself with the essence of people (men exclusively) whom she kills. This goes back to Elizabeth Bathory bathing in blood, not to mention most vampire stories. Calling June a leech is a little strong (she might have been a black widow or man-eating mantis, and leeches are never mentioned at any point in the film), but I guess it makes the point. Meanwhile, something in the set-up, and the pineal pin on the ring, reminded me of Marilyn Chambers’ appendage in Rabid. So things could have been worse for June.
*. All of this is interesting enough, and I also really like the extra twist in tying June’s alcoholism in with her need to get her next nipe fix later in the film. She’s just an addictive personality. But if we look into the matter a little more closely we can see that what she’s really addicted to is love. She even wants to love Paul. And so it’s hard not have sympathy for her. Especially, I would add, as all the men we meet are heels.
*. So it’s a promising story, and Coleen Gray does what she can with the part. But yes, it’s a terrible movie. Even at only 77 minutes it feels much too long, spending half that time just getting us to Africa, the Land of Stock Footage. So much more might have been done with the premise. But it was 1960 and there were limits on where movies were going to go when dealing with an empowered woman like June. In the end she is destroyed by her own vanity as much as by society’s double standards. But what does the survival of the odious Neil tell us? I guess if all men are jerks then it’s inevitable that a jerk would be left alive at the end.

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