After nearly forty years, from their classic silent horrors of the Twenties through the golden era of the Thirties, the endless sequels of the Forties and the Jack Arnold Fifties, the Universal Horror cycle finally ground to a halt with a film more like what they might have made in the Forties than anything they’d made recently.
Perhaps that was because The Leech Woman was, literally, a B Picture. Now that’s a term that gets used a lot these days, but I doubt if too many of those using it know what it actually means. Originally, it meant a film made to fill the bottom half of a double feature — the “B” film of the program — which meant that they were typically short (usually right around an hour) and made on a tighter budget than the “A” film.
What makes this particularly strange is that this one was made to accompany Hammer Films’ The Brides of Dracula. After all, it was one of the earlier examples of that new breed of more violent and gory horror introduced by Hammer, the kind of movie which helped put an end to the sort of thing Universal had been doing all those years.
And, true to type, we get lots of stock footage, the backlot pretending to be African jungle, and some moderately impressive make up by Jack Pierce.
While this is a somewhat familiar sort of story — with a few minor changes it could be one of probably dozens of lesser horror films — a rather large chunk of the film goes by before we get to those familiar horror elements.
Instead, we start with Doctor Talbot, a particularly unlikable endocrinologist who never cared much for his older wife and now detests her because she is, well, old. They’re planning to divorce when a mysterious woman walks into his office. While she looks incredibly ancient, she is healthier than he expects and claims to be 152 years old.
…Or was that 148? The number seems to change along the way. But it really doesn’t matter, she’s old. Very old.
And Dr. Talbot is even more impressed when she takes a few grains of a mysterious drug and her health improves instantly.
It’s a remarkably pure and powerful hormone, derived from a plant, which she claims her mother brought with her when the two were sold into slavery almost a century and a half ago. And, what’s more, the tribe has another secret, one that can not only slow aging, but reverse it.
So, naturally, Doctor Talbot runs off to the jungle to find the mysterious tribe who control this strange secret, dragging his wife along so he’ll have a guinea pig.
Well, you know that isn’t going to work out.
It turns out that the missing ingredient for reversing a woman’s age is taken from the pineal gland (with a little scoop on a special ring), killing the male donor.
We will, of course, ignore the fact that the pineal gland is deep in the brain, not in the base of the skull — and that, as it only produces regulatory hormones, damaging or removing it probably wouldn’t be instantly fatal.
So, naturally, we know that the wife will have her youth restored, and that it won’t last. We’ve seen this film before, right? Back when it was calling itself something else, with a different cast and a slightly different story.
And, naturally, she’ll have to keep killing. And killing. And killing.
Like I said, we’ve seen this one before.
I have to say that I’m not exactly impressed by the make-up, but I think that’s mostly because Jack Pierce was involved and I expected a lot better from the man who created the original Frankenstein’s Monster. I suppose with anyone else’s name on it it would seem moderately impressive. However, while Coleen Gray (as the Leech Woman herself, Janet Talbot) is supposed to be old and unattractive in the beginning of the film, I found myself thinking that all she really needed was a trip to the beauty parlor. As far as the increasingly extreme old age makeup goes, there’s a raw edge clearly visible at one point, and the final make-up looks far too much like a mask. There are no Wolfman-style transitions, either, so I suspect that perhaps they didn’t have a lot to spend on the make-up either.
Instead, for the first transition, when the old woman becomes a beautiful girl, they used an old stage magicians trick, with huge clouds of smoke hiding the switch of actresses. When this repeats with Coleen Gray later on, there is an (almost) invisible cut in the midst of the smoke to give them time to change her make-up.
One big cloud of smoke just doesn’t give you the time to do that.
As in a lot of movies from the Fifties, there are the expected hints of the supernatural: a prophecy, wild jungle rituals and lots of dancing. That, however is all wrapped around a fairly straightforward and natural exotic drug made from a rare plant and a typical mad scientist plot twist. However, it seems a somewhat half-hearted effort and only hints at its once noble Universal Horror lineage.
Oh, well. It’s okay. And minor.
It just doesn’t measure up to those classic films.
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