director Edward Dein
I like a good double feature when I can arrange one, and as the fates would have it, I found myself with the 1960 horror film The Leech Woman alongside 1982’s Parasite. Tonight was gonna SUCK!
The Leech Woman seems to be the last of the original run of Universal Horror films, and as you would expect from the last of a dying breed, it’s not spectacular. It’s also a bit of a misnomer because there is no leech in the picture. There is blood-drinking, African stereotypes, and stock footage animals, but no leeches.
Somewhat like Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959), we’re faced with a sort of proto-feminist horror, the crisis of the loss of youth in female beauty in a society for whom a woman’s looks are her everything. Here Coleen Gray is June Talbot, the alcoholic wife of a heartless doctor who has lost all feeling for her save cruelty. When the doctor stumbles on a potential formula for renewed youth, a formula that must be traced to deepest, darkest Africa, he pulls her along as well.
It turns out though that this formula is a mixture of parts of a very obscure orchid and fluid from some gland at the back of the human skull, obtained only in murder! June quickly sacrifices her husband to gain her youth, getting some revenge for his coarse misogyny. What happens next is a brutal slaughter of the denizen of this obscure village so that the two white people can escape alive.
June also finds that this formula is not one meant for long-time use and has some pretty bad side-effects as well.
I don’t know that there is or isn’t a feminist critique inherent to the film, though I think one can read it for those things. The period racism is painful, but hardly original, sadly.
Overall, though it lacks much in the way of thrills (or even a real leech woman), there is a level of pathos to the human element of the story. Alcoholism, female sexual desire, revenge…it’s rife with those “adult situation” that the MPAA is always talking about. A bit more complex than you might initially give it credit.