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June 2016

The Leech Woman

cast: Grant Williams, Coleen Gray, Phillip Terry, Gloria Talbott, and John van Dreelen

director: Edward Dein

77 minutes (12) 1960
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Screenbound DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Leech Woman

Forever young, forever deadly... This cheaply concocted quickie, contrived as a B-picture support for the American launch of The Brides Of Dracula, is all the things you'd expect it to be. There's the blend of familiar themes and tropes mix-matched from other tales, with plots and rehashed devices we know from other films and genres. The three main male leads are visually interchangeable in the way that well-groomed matinee idols tended to be at that time. Yet oddly, it all hangs together in a quite satisfying way, with occasional intimations that, given time and a modicum of creative imagination, it could have been even better.

There's an ancient African-American woman called Malla (Estelle Hemsley). "Looks like she came out of the Mummy's tomb," says nurse Sally (Gloria Talbott, the bride from I Married A Monster From Outer Space, 1958). Malla claims to be 152-years-old, and tells how she was branded on her shoulder by Arab slavers before being snatched from Africa for forcible transportation into American slavery. Her longevity is due to using her native people's rejuvenating Nipé-powder. Needless to say, we are already probing deep into H. Rider-Haggard's She territory, with this 'savage proud' tribe and their "secret process to retard age".

Unfortunately they are called the Nandos, which now brings to mind thoughts of a peri-peri chicken restaurant chain. Yet this cross-Atlantic slave-trade link is quite contentious for a film of this kind, and could have formed the basis for an even more ambitious project - with Malla as the focus, merging overtones of The Colour Purple (1985), with Interview With A Vampire (1994), over-viewing a traumatic slab of American history through a supernatural edge. Needless to say, it ducks out of such a challenge.

Intent on returning to her homeland, Malla first visits the clinic of Dr Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry), as a "leather-faced experimental subject," instead of him "butchering guinea-pigs" for his endocrinology research. Talbot's wife June (Coleen Gray) - draped in a dead fox-fur and ten years his senior, scared by the age-gap, is a 'sloppy-drunk', and with the cruddy pair's combative marriage on the point of divorce, there's amusingly barbed dialogue. "That's a novelty, your refusing anything with alcohol in it," he snipes. "If you're trying to humiliate me, you did that years ago," she retaliates. So why is he so keen on an attempted reconciliation trip to Africa? She bitterly realises it's only because he needs her as his next experimental subject in his quest for "the elixir of sudden wealth and beauty."

Filmed in the Universal Hollywood studios, there's spliced-in wildlife aplenty, added like in a Tarzan movie, and far from convincingly. Then the terrified native porters scatter, like they do in all good Tarzan films. And they're captured by the Nandos, where Malla is already revered. The pollen of a rare orchid species provides longevity, but - when mixed with pineal fluid extracted from the brainstem of male victims, it can reverse ageing to provide "a last flowering of love and beauty before death." They witness Malla's transformation through conveniently obscuring swirls of steam, emerging young and beautiful, but bearing that same recognisable slavers' brand.

Gray was a regular guest star on TV's Ironside and McCloud, with Perry Mason and Mr Ed also on her bulging CV. She always gives a good value performance. And if she's previously portrayed June as a sadly sympathetic character, in a ruthless turnaround she's quick to select husband Paul to be her first donor. He's killed. But she's young, so that makes it okay. Then, she's drawn to the charismatic safari-guide Bertram Garvay (John van Dreelen), who'd earlier saved her from a predatory leopard and romantically tells her "there's only one trouble with running away, you always meet yourself when you get there," but once they've escaped the tribe together, and he sinks into a swamp, she doesn't hesitate to use the sacrificial Nandos ring to replenish her supply of pineal secretion from his cerebellum moments before he dies.

The final section of the film takes on a Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde duality with June back in America both as her ageing self and - once rejuvenated, in the guise of her own young niece 'Terry'. By-passing a comedy drunk she allows herself to be picked up outside a bar by a smooth con-man. She kills him on look-out hill even as he moves in to strangle her. Meanwhile, nurse Sally is back, now as the love-rival fiancée of her attorney Neil Foster (Grant Williams, direct from The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957). When Sally gets suspicious, June kills her too.

Finally, as the investigating cops close in, she drinks Sally's pineal fluid - resulting in the opposite effect, she grows hideously ugly. Unlike vampiress Elizabeth Bathory in Hammer's later Countess Dracula (1971), the blood of young virgins doesn't do the do. This is strictly a make-hormone serum thing. Neil discovers her wrinkled skeletal corpse beneath the shattered window from which she'd jumped. Forever young, forever deadly... It could have been better. It could have been a damn sight worse. As it is, The Leech Woman makes for an enjoyably silly 77-minute excursion into vintage strangeness.

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