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.
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.
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.
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.
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!