The Leech Woman (1960)

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Coleen Gray is forever young! Forever deadly!

From yesterday’s Captive Wild Woman (1943), I jump ahead some years to another hormonally based experiment gone sour in another Universal picture, The Leech Woman (1960). This is a dandy of a thriller directed by Edward Dein, with much of the plot depending on makeup by Bud Westmore (Creature From the Black Lagoon). Coleen Gray is made to look like an old, leathery, haggard crone for her role as the bitter alcoholic wife of a nasty endocrinologist (Phillip Terry). As they argue in his office and decide to get a divorce after years of abuse, bickering and resentment, an elderly woman (Estelle Hemsley) sits in his waiting room. She’s another in a long line of patients who arrive in response to Terry’s ad seeking mature women to undergo his youth treatments. Hemsley, described as looking like she walked out of a mummy’s tomb, does come bearing ancient and chilling secrets. She says she’s seen Gray in “dreams of blood” which foretell the death of her husband, and tells Terry she’s actually 152 years old. Hemsley wants him to pay her way back to her long lost tribe in Africa, where she must undergo a special ritual before her death. In exchange for this funding she offers to give him the secret to her longevity, a powder harvested by her tribe, as well as the second secret ingredient, which mixed with this powder, produces an elixir that will make a woman young and desirable again.

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Terry, seeing untold profit in owning and selling such a treatment, agrees to her deal, then pretends to reconcile with Gray and takes her to Africa with him. They hire a dashing guide (John Van Dreelen) and full crew for their expedition. Well into the jungle, well past the crocodiles and snakes and under a growing kettle of vultures, Gray learns her husband is still a Grade A loser and emotional bully who considers her disposable. They’re soon captured by Hemsley’s tribe and invited to witness her age-reversal ritual before they’ll be put to death. 

Here they get the secrets of the elixir and some views on aging. Hemsley tells how men as they age gain dignity and honour, while old women are diminished, pitied and cast aside by society. She claims it is the universal desire of women to regain the youthful beauty that once gave them great power over men. The ritual begins with secret ingredient number two: the pineal gland juices from a sacrificial male, drugged and stabbed, better to say ‘tapped,’ in the back of the neck with a special ring. There is a dramatic puff of smoke, and when it clears, Hemsley is replaced by her younger, gorgeous self, played by Kim Hamilton. Nice trick, with one catch; the effects are short lived and she will wither to dust soon after.

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Terry, awestruck and seeing dollar signs, hatches an escape plan to abandon Gray while offering her to undergo the same ritual as a distraction. Which makes his shock all the more satisfying and comical when Gray gets her revenge and chooses him to be her sacrificial male. After another cloud of smoke (at the 45 minute mark) Coleen becomes the beautiful Gray we know. She escapes the tribe but as predicted, her youth quickly wears off and each time it does, she’s older, baggier and uglier than the time before, and each time she must murder another man to mix her potion.

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This is a wild ride that starts off slowly, looking like a domestic drama in the opening, but gathers speed and meaning as it snowballs into a disturbing adventure. There’s almost nobody likable in this movie, yet I liked watching them all scheme, lie, cheat, steal and kill, thanks to the good acting (plus they all mostly deserve what they get). Gray especially shines as she goes from being selfish, tortured and belittled to ice-cold, ruthless and predatory. She murders a handful of people and pretends to be her own niece so she can seduce her handsome young lawyer (Grant Williams). Old Gray bites off her words through gritted teeth and oozes hostility, while young Gray slinks around and turns on the tempting come-hither stares. leech3

When a murder investigation closes in on her, her final terrifying transformation is one you won’t soon forget. It’s rich how men lose their minds for her but recoil in horror when her beauty wears off, which fulfills the words of wise old Hemsley. The charming, very George Sanders-ish Van Dreelen literally flees into the jungle when faced with her wrinkles, only moments after professing his undying devotion. Williams dumps his fiance in no time flat after getting an eyeful of young Gray. Her power and her emotions whipsaw every time she has men in her grip and then has to clutch to keep (or kill) them. There’s a lot to talk about here in terms of what a woman’s youth and beauty mean, to her and to those she attracts, how real love is when based on looks, how much women need the attention of men, and how far a woman should go to keep her youth. But you can talk about those things after you’re done talking about the dangerous safari, the native dances, the quicksand, the jewel thief, the detectives, the jealous nurse with the gun, the great makeup, and the fun, creepy performance by Coleen Gray. 

Many thanks to John K. for passing this one to me!

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15 thoughts on “The Leech Woman (1960)”

  1. I LOVE this movie. I’ve only seen it sent up by Mystery Science Theater 3000 – which just makes me love it all the more. I know what I’ll be doing tonight!!!

    1. What fun this was, I love these types of movies anyway but to see Coleen Gray chewing up the scenery and doing all these evil things was so entertaining. But like I said, they all deserved it! Thanks!

  2. This does sound like some interesting points are raised, e.g. youth, beauty, and the power beauty has over men. And the rest of the movie sounds like a terrific ride. Where are you finding all these gems?

    1. Mostly from my own vast collection (browsing it feels like an expedition into the jungle sometimes, lol) but this one was sent to me by a friend of the blog! Very grateful. Another fun one.

  3. Hi Kristina,
    Thanks for the credit;much appreciated!
    Lovely review I might add.
    I always thought Coleen Gray was above these B flicks
    she ended up in especially after working with the
    likes of Hawks and Kubrick.
    Nevertheless Coleen does not seem to have any regrets
    about the way her career developed and she has
    a fondness for THE LEECH WOMAN as it’s the only
    film where she received top billing.
    B Movie great Gloria Talbott said she only did the film
    because her daughter wanted a horse for her birthday!
    I think we share a love for these wacky B Horrors,
    I sent Laura one of my all-time faves MAN WITHOUT A BODY
    but it got lost in transit,so I’ll resend that one at some point.
    There is also a Peter Lorre double bill marked for your
    attention in a “jet over the Atlantic” at this very moment.
    Many thanks to Laura for her continued “spreading of the joy”
    of these little epics.

    1. Yes always big thanks to Laura for passing this and many other goodies on to me 🙂 handed to me in person which of course made it even better! Thanks so much for this and other treasures you’re sending along, I hope you know how grateful I am, I love these movies (usually way more than pretentious art films) at least these give you loads of entertainment and in this case fun work by a great combo of familiar faces.
      I think Gray did a great job, delighting in her youth and shattered when she switched back. Gloria Talbott was so fun here, her actions at the end were surprising, this movie throws some curveballs at you which makes it such unpredictable fun. Always something bigger to think about with these stories, if you want to 🙂 Best and thanks again

  4. It’s great you drew attention to it. I deeply love THE LEECH WOMAN, a movie that will probably never get the respect it deserves. It’s pulpy and very low-budget (though beautifully designed as one expects from this studio) and any prestige seems to be the furthest thing from its mind, but so often it’s in just these kinds of movies that there is real artistry and something really serious might be tapped–here what aging and loss of youthful beauty actually means to women and how they may be treated as this happens; the horror movie frame heightens the internal drama of this and give it a fine intensity. I like the way you acknowledge the deeper theme in your piece.

    It surprised me when I watched this film a second or third time to see that as director Edward Dein made a virtue of the low budget and short shooting schedule, scenes like those between Gray and Terry at the beginning could be done in impressive long takes in which the interaction is deep-dyed. Coleen Gray was never better than in these scenes, truly finding pathos and humanity that I believe one can still see in her character even after she becomes a killer–yes, she goes to evil but is so deeply motivated she deserves a complex reaction. Just be willing to take the film seriously, even as it is enjoyably outrageous on another level, and you’ll see an excellent movie and one of the best ever of Coleen Gray, who was generally underrated in her day but happily is still alive to get some of the recognition she has always deserved for so much good work.

    THE LEECH WOMAN was the last black and white B horror movie from Universal, happily under the Universal-International regime, where the legacy of horror had evolved into the 50s into their eternally great sci-fi cycle, resonances of the horror film in those, as there is a touch of sci-fi in this very contemporary throwback to the horror films.

    1. Gray did a fantastic job, dual roles are juicy anyway and this one gave her not only genre action, makeup and spectacle but also the big theme of youth and beauty and the angle of being a belittled wife. I always love actors who give their all to horror or scifi films, and don’t look like they’d rather be somewhere else, and look here what a payoff we all get when the actor takes it seriously, it can lift the movie beyond a simple scarefest. On paper none of these characters should be likable but as you say (and I agree) Gray gets so mistreated and beaten down that she is sympathetic when she uses her beauty and when she loses it. It becomes her addiction. Her last scene disturbed me and I can only imagine how it would have affected audiences at the time! Sticks with you.

      That’s interesting about it being the last B&W, didn’t know that. Thanks as always for taking the time to read and leave your thoughts. Best!

  5. Kristina, we’ve known our share of leeches, but The Leech Woman is one scary dame! 😀 Seriously, I could swear I saw it on MST3K, In any case I was glad to see that blast from the past! 😀 Have a great day, my friend! :-

    1. Haha, you’ve known some leeches, have you? Glad to see so many fans of this movie, I sure am, wonder why it took me so long to get to it! Thanks 🙂

      1. Glad you got a kick out of THE Leech Woman. too, Kristina! Hope you and yours had a great Mother’s Day, too!

  6. Hi Cristina. It was nice meeting you at TCM. Coleen told me that THE LEECH WOMAN helped pay for the house she still maintains near Mulholland Drive. I also knew the late Kim Hamilton quite well; she was a sweetie-pie. She remembered THE LEECH WOMAN as a fun experience. It is one of the movies I enjoyed as a kid and still do. Thanks for reminding me!

    1. Likewise Alan, glad I got the chance to meet and chat for a bit. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that info. Those ladies and everyone did great work to make this such a fun movie to watch, and I enjoy seeing all these comments about how well loved it is! Best for a successful fest in Palm Springs, wish I could attend.

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