Happy Halloween Eve! It’s day three of Horror Half-Week, and we’re moving from serious Criterion Channel thrillers to somewhat-silly sci-fi. If you missed day one or two, check out my recommendations of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Diabolique (1955).
Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) has a fine work life, but a failing marriage. His wife, June (Coleen Gray), is ten years older than him and an alcoholic. Paul has decided he’d prefer a young and vivacious wife. “Old women always give me the creeps,” he says.
Paul and June were once in love, though, so when an elderly woman named Malla (Estelle Hemsley) comes to Paul’s office promising she knows how to turn the old young again, he’s intrigued. Could this treatment save his marriage — and earn him buckets of money by marketing it to the public?
Malla will only share the secret if Paul funds her trip to the African village where she was born, and where she first learned of the treatment. Soon, Paul, June, and Malla head off on an international journey to find the secret to eternal youth.
The Leech Woman was directed by Edward Dein and written by David Duncan, from a story by Ben Pivar and Francis Rosenwald.
The Leech Woman is one of those films where just about every character is easy to dislike. June is an emotionally-manipulative alcoholic, and Paul is a checked-out, unsympathetic husband. They’ve finally agreed to begin preparing for a divorce when we meet them.
Paul is particularly disingenuous and cruel, however. Between the two of them, I couldn’t help rooting for June. Phillip Terry’s performance as Paul suits the film and makes the character even easier to hate than he would be on paper.
Paul treats June like she’s nothing more than his personal lab rat, and he only values her if she can become young and beautiful again. He even has no issue with the human sacrifice element of the youth-giving treatment, so long as women can become beautiful again for his enjoyment. (Can you see my eyes rolling out of my head? I really hated this guy!)
The film is a bit heavy-handed in its exoticism as June and Paul visit Malla’s home village, as is to be expected from the mid-century. It has the usually wildly-dancing natives and mysterious, supernatural ceremonies.
However, there is also some cool use of stock wildlife footage. And most surprisingly, the exception to the easily-hateable characters is Malla. Her wishes are simple: to return to her home and have one last evening of youth before she dies. She’s not without fault, but her faults are few, especially when compared to Paul.
(Side note: Kim Hamilton, better known for guest appearances on shows like Adam-12 and Sanford and Son than her film work, makes an appearance as the young Malla. The role is small, but Hamilton steals a scene or two.)
While it is just a silly, low-budget sci-fi/horror film, The Leech Woman does offer some still-relevant commentary on aging, ageism, and society’s treatment of women as they age. “Your youth will not last long. Don’t waste it,” June is told after taking the treatment, and she becomes desperate to hold on to her rediscovered youth after returning to the States.
Though it appears in a sci-fi collection and has a title fit for a creature feature, much of The Leech Woman plays like an adventure film. With a few tweaks, it could also make a great serial killer film, focusing on June in her quest to maintain her youth after returning to the U.S. But as it stands, The Leech Woman is a good time-passer with a decent share of camp. Recommended for fellow fans of odd, forgotten, low-budget cheesers.