The behind-the-scenes story of The Leech Woman is an unlikely one. Only created by Universal because the studio needed another film to play as a double bill alongside Hammer’s The Brides Of Dracula, Edward Dein’s 1960 horror belies its shoehorned origins by actually being quite good.
Arrogant doctor Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) journeys to Africa in an attempt to discover the secret of eternal youth, forcing his mistreated, alcoholic wife June (Coleen Gray) to accompany him as an unwilling guinea pig. But when she becomes the beneficiary of the elixir, her younger self continues to take her destiny in her own hands, leading to her becoming the predatory murderess of the title.
Despite being 56 years old, and obviously of its time in a number of respects (the portrayal of the African tribesmen is vintage Hollywood), The Leech Woman is equally light years ahead in others. Before June becomes a monster, we’re given ample time to get to know the woman she once was: one trampled and psychologically tortured by her husband to such an extent that alcohol becomes her only solace. So much time is spent on establishing her victim status that it’s hard not to root for her when she turns the tables on him.
Her later actions make any defence of her slightly more problematic, but with her issues having been laid bare before us, it’s still hard to accept her as a monster, no matter how indefensible she becomes. Coleen Gray, in particular, should come in for praise: weighed down by old-age make-up in the early scenes, she continues to bring new depths to what seems on the surface to be a superficially pulpy role, and it’s thanks to her that the character is as memorable as she is.
Even so, it’s not perfect by any means. The obvious use of stock footage comes across as jarring, and the final third definitely has a rushed feeling about it – you get the sense that the pacing could have been slightly more measured, such is the relatively breakneck pace of the opening half.
But these are mere quibbles; this is definitely worth your time.