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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Leech Woman

Universal's B unit cranked out a second-feature film to package with Brides of Dracula. The resulting movie, Leech Woman (LW) was only peripherally a sci-fi story with stronger horror tone. Yet, despite its low budget secondary nature, LW manages to be cut above the average B movie. The premise isn't entirely new. It is a mash-up of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde ('31), Wasp Woman, ('59) She-Demons, ('58) and Womaneater ('59). The search for eternal youth has Faustian consequences.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Endochrinologist, Dr. Paul Talbot anticipates glory from his work on aging. He disdains his past-peak wife June. She longs for his love and is furious at his rejections. A shriveled old woman named Malla comes to Dr. Talbot. She is 152 years old. A mysterious powder from central Africa extends her life. It can restore youth. Paul decides to take June to Africa to see (and maybe get a hot wife to boot). Paul, June and Bertram their guide, are captured by the Nandos tribesman. Malla shows them the secret, though they'll never leave to tell anyone. The powder is mixed with the juice from the pineal gland of a young man victim. Malla becomes a lush young babe. She offers to let June try it. Paul hints at deserting June to save himself, so June selects Paul as her sacrificial pineal donor. June becomes a lush young babe. She and Bertram escape with a dynamite diversion. June discovers that babedom was temporary. Horrified and desperate for youth, she kills Bertram for his pineal juice. She returns to the States pretending to be June's niece, Terry. When age returns again, she kills a two-bit hoodlum for his pineal. Terry tries to seduce Neil. His finacee Sally intervenes and gets killed for it. The police come snooping around looking for June. They find dead Sally. Age returns to Terry/June. Sally's female hormone didn't do the trick. Terry/June jumps from a balcony and dies, her body that of a haggard old woman. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The premise isn't entirely new, but neither is it worn out (yet). Even if things are fairly predictable, there is enough food for thought in the script to make it rewarding. While the directing and cinematography are not remarkable, the pace seldom bogs down (other than some trudging through the jungle scenes).

Cold War Angle
This is a science-gone-wrong tale of vanity and hubris. There are no Cold War motives in play.

Pineal Power -- Nevermind that the pineal gland is several inches inside the brain, so a hooked ring could never get there. The pineal gland had some mystique about it. Decartes fancied it was the seat of the soul. In the late 50s, the pineal hormone melatonin was studied as a possible cure for some skin diseases. Melatonin does play a role in sexuality. Prepubescent youth had higher quantities of melatonin. As such, having pineal hormone tagged as youth secret was not so far fetched.

Encore Encore -- A couple 50s B sci-fi faces return. Grant Williams plays the young lawyer, Neil. Williams is more famous as the Incredible Shrinking Man. Gloria Talbot plays his fiancee, Sally. She starred the unfortunate bride, Marge, in I Married A Monster From Outer Space ('58).

Jekyll's Daughter -- The trope of body-changing drugs is not new. Here, instead of the Jekyll/Hyde duality of civilized vs. bestial, the dualism is youth-beauty vs. age-ugliness. As in Wasp Woman, ('59) the presumption is that only pretty, young, vivacious women are of value. June, not quite the innocent victim, becomes so obsessed with being "worshipped by men" that she easily becomes a serial killer.

Malla's Monologue -- Old Malla gives the rationale for the story in a monologue before undergoing her transformation. "For a man, old age has rewards. His gray hairs bring dignity. He is treated with honor and respect. But, for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best, she is pitied. Contempt and neglect." The nypee drug gives them one last fling at youthful lust before they die.

What's In A Name? -- Low-budget productions avoided retakes to keep costs down and schedules tight. Unless a scene went noticeably wrong, it was kept. When young-June and Bertram were running from the Nandos village, she called him John at one point (the actor's actual name). A short while later, she calls him David. The credits list him as Bertram. Oh well. He dies of a neck jab either way.

Bottom line? LW is actually a better movie than its title suggests. It is thin on the science in its fiction, but makes up for it as a commentary on obsession with youth. LW would make a fun triple feature with Wasp Woman and She-Demons. The deadly quest for youth and beauty.

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