The Mad Science Feminist Manifesto

LEECH poster

Question: any readers out there who recall the actor Phillip Terry? (Anybody?)

Terry was one of those minor players entrenched on those vast, low-lying cliffs of Vaguely Remembered Character Actors that supported the ever-shifting heights of the Hollywood Olympian pantheon. He seems best known, and mainly only to hard-core classic-Hollywood fanatics (such as yours truly), for two roles: as Ray Milland’s teetotaler brother in The Lost Weekend; and as one of Joan Crawford’s husbands (if you’ll forgive me for designating a Joan Crawford Spouse as a role). His career was a fizzing spark, made up of bit parts or featured roles in low-budget movies, with that one startling burst, like a flare exploding off the Sun, of an unexpected marriage to a superstar.

Several Crawford biographers I consulted—Donald Spoto, Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell, Fred Lawrence Guiles, Charlotte Chandler—all agree that Terry, a mild, unassuming, pleasant fellow (“utterly placid,” say Quirk and Schoell), was chosen by Joan because she wanted a father for her recently adopted children. I find some poignancy in Terry’s situation; the very qualities that made him attractive to Crawford, his affability and gentleness, led her to dump him. All the biographers agree that Joan ended the marriage (“It was perhaps the greatest mistake I ever made”) because she was bored. Oh dear. In any case, Terry, like the quiet gentleman he was, never spoke a word about his Joan episode, but kept mum to the end. (Per Chandler, Billy Wilder once remarked that the unaggressive Terry had a face that didn’t look right without glasses. Oh dear, oh dear.)

Well, I think you will all be surprised, as I was, at how good, how really good, Terry is in Universal’s 1960 sci-fi schlock classic The Leech Woman. He plays a nasty scientist stuck in a miserable marriage to an older, richer, hard-drinking woman, and he is mean here. The relationship is the kind that plays out like chemo: Hubby builds up his wife’s hopes with cooing blandishments, then grinds her down with insults, depending on his mood. Terry speaks his lines in a voice that slides from sugar to snide; it made my earlobes curl to hear it. Who’da thought such a bland-looking fellow had it in him? (Maybe the absence of glasses helped.) I have a snarky fantasy about Terry going Method here, recalling memories and feelings, maybe not of how he actually behaved during a marriage to a powerful, controlling diva, but of how he would have liked to behave. Perhaps his performance is, in part, wishful autobiography—fantasized payback time.

LEECHterry

However, it’s the put-upon Mrs. Scientist who enacts cinematic revenge; payback, in various fantasical ways, is the modus operandi of The Leech Woman. I will unapologetically spring a spoiler here. No leeches appear in this film. Not one. Nor does a comely young actress turn into something flat and slimy with suckers on it. There’s not even any bloodsucking, even though you might expect that from the studio that gave you Dracula. No, Leech here has another meaning. It’s what women take from men to become young again, literally so: the hormone from the male pineal gland, which, combined with pollen from a rare African orchid, turns a middle-aged woman into a fresh-faced 20-year-old:

LEECHbefore

Before …

LEECHafter

… and After.

When you step back from the mad-science plot and objectively think about it, youth-restoring experiments are not all that mad-sciency. I don’t think you can stumble through twenty-four hours today without encountering an ad, an article, a product, that promises to scrape off the years’ detritus and restore youth’s bloom. That’s what Terry’s scientist, an endocrinologist experimenting on how to make older women younger, aims to do. At least his research has a clear-cut goal: he wants to make pots of money. Most cinematic mad scientists do what they do for reasons vaguely idealistic or just perversely curious (just tell me again why Whit Bissell wants to turn Michael Landon in a werewolf?), but profit is understandable. In a perpetually changing age, the search for youth is one of the few fixed points ambitious entrepreneurs can count on.

The catch—there’s always a catch—is that the youth result is short-lived. An additional catch—there’s usually that, too—is that to access the pineal the unfortunate male donor has to be killed. That’s done via a ring equipped with a sharp little point, to pierce skin and bone. The wearer swings an arm through the air in a mighty arc and then slams the ring down with an equally mighty thunk onto the back of the victim’s head. Scenes of this accessing method have that satisfyingly sadistic frisson that cheap horror gives, of enacting, metaphorically, violently anarchistic fantasies against the dominant social order. It’s especially fantastic when you consider actual human physiognomy. The pineal gland is located deep in the skull; to get at it would probably require a long-bitted drill and a lot of patience. Who wants to bother with that? The Swing-and-Thunk technique is much more pleasing. It beautifully combines swift physical action with direct impact. Any lady can learn to do it. And one lady does:

A Swing ...

A Swing …

... and a Thunk.

… and a Thunk.

That’s why I love The Leech Woman. It’s not been geared toward the usual horror audience of teenaged males (when Life is a drag, turn into a Teenage Werewolf). It’s like a peek into the repressed daydreams of desperate housewives getting back at the patriarchal order. The film mixes a standard horror plot (sticking one’s nose into Ways Of Nature That Do Not Concern Mere Mortals) with an overheated women’s melodrama, of an aging wife terrified of losing her husband’s love; and then it goes bonkers with it, ratcheting the film up to a meta level of radical revenge fantasy. The way the Leech Woman swings and thunks her way through the plot, dispatching random males to get a few drops of hormone (even pursuing one hapless fellow through a swamp to swing a swipe at his precious pineal), really gets to schlock sci-fi’s essence. All the mad scientific paraphernalia—the theories, the lab coats, the shiny beakers filled with shiny fluids—serve merely as the Macguffin. What we wait for, and enjoy, is for Science to screw up royally so the horror antics can begin.

One live Leech Woman and one dead pinealed male.

One live Leech Woman and one dead de-pinealed male.

In defense of the Leech Woman’s antics, I’ll note that she’s been getting it real bad from men. Particularly from her louse of a husband (the film inspires insect terminology; if she’s a leech, he’s a louse). The title character is dipsomaniacal June Talbot (an excellent performance by Coleen Gray), who downs the booze like Ray Milland on a slow Saturday night, to numb herself against the knowledge that her husband (Terry) no longer loves her now that she’s getting old. Even though he treats her like dirt (sample sneer: “I think I like you better when you’re sloppy drunk and violent, that’s the real you”), she clings to him in a manner guaranteed to make him spurn her. I wince with sympathy when I watch June. She’s so helpless in her need, it leaves her no pride or self-reliance, and she hates herself for her desire and for aging in a society that equates desire with youth. Gray lets it all hang out, knocking back a slug of whiskey and then caressing herself while her face and body turn loose and pleasurably slack, as if in post-coital glow. In no way is this woman ready to be slabbed on ice for the embalmers. She seethes like milk on a hot stove.

LEECHwhiskey

The film is radical in other, innocently trashy ways; it’s startingly upfront on white notions of race, blackness, and the mysteries of Africa. Dr. Talbot learns about the youth formula from Malla, an extremely aged black woman who claims she was brought to America as a slave in the 19th century and to have stayed alive for 150 years. She knows part of the “jungle-born secret” hinted at in the film’s poster (above), but the whole procedure is revealed only when Talbot packs wife and goods and heads for the Dark Continent—the site of subconscious, forbidden desires in the Western imagination. All the clichés are here: mud huts, dancing natives, pounding drums, and clouds of incense accompanying Malla’s restoration ritual. I half-expected a loin-clothed Johnny Weismuller to drop in. And when things get tough, Talbot, in true louse fashion, threatens to abandon his wife to the natives’ mercy while he hies out for safety (promising he’ll come back to get her—honest). If you’re not hatching your own Swing-N-Thunk fantasies by this point, you haven’t been paying attention.

The script, surprisingly, offsets these stereotypes by not condescending to Malla. She’s no mammy figure but a smart, dignified, and independent woman, who knows what she wants and how to get it. (She’s my choice for a feminist role model.) The two actresses who play old and young Malla, Estelle Hemsley and Kim Hamilton, are terrific. As young Malla, Hamilton is cool, regal, and staggeringly beautiful, but Hemsley as old Malla is really the film’s pivot. Her make-up (courtesy of Bud of the Westmore clan) makes her look as if she’s been baked in alligator hide, but she gives a wonderful performance, using her eyes and voice to convey her intelligence, her savvy use of her exoticism and Otherness to interest the white doctor. She’ll give up her part of the secret for an all-expenses-paid trip back to her tribe, to rejuvenate her youth. “Nothing can reverse the aging process,” asserts Talbot. “Nothing that you would know about,” replies Malla. Talbot snaps at that like a guppy.

LEECHmalla

Because everything in The Leech Woman is packaged in a dumb B-movie plot, meant to balance a double bill to keep kids entertained and indoors on summer afternoons, you may just pass it off as another silly schlock-fest, meant to be ridiculed à la MST3K-style (and The Leech Woman has actually received the MST3K treatment). Well, I disagree. Sure, The Leech Woman is about as B as it can get, with corners almost being visibly cut as you watch. Its jungle is basically the camera alternating between actors pointing at studio-bound foliage and animals prowling on a stock-footage veldt. And a sleazy red-light district at nighttime is made up of one brightly lit bar and a couple of strolling extras. Goodness, Shirley Temple would have felt safe here.

LEECHsafe

But I think the film’s very B-ness allows it to be more outrageous, more blatant about unspoken cultural assumptions on race, age, female desire, and the utter hell of a bad marriage. It can swing-and-thunk right down to a gut level of fears and feelings that A-list cinema would be too sophisticated to acknowledge.  And because it’s all compressed into about 77 minutes, it gets straight to the point; no time to parry with subtlety  Malla bluntly states the film’s thesis: “For a man, old age has rewards…his gray hairs bring dignity and he’s treated with honor and respect. But for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best she’s pitied. More often her lot is of contempt and neglect.” That sounds obvious to today’s ears, but remember, this film was released in 1960—three years before the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Could the tide of second-wave feminism have already been rippling, however faintly, in under-the-radar B-cinema? (Your assignment: research and discuss.)

Still, there are the pleasures of B-for-Bad cinema, those fun tropes that feed gleeful fantasies as deeply buried as the pineal gland. Director Edward Dein, who brought us the loopily cult Cold-War noir Shack Out on 101, keeps the action just as loopy here. When Gray isn’t swinging and thunking, she’s ogling young male hunks, or cat-fighting B-sci-fi stalwart Gloria Talbott (whose stiffly coiffed tresses look like a hair-sprayed samurai helmet)—that is, when she isn’t plastered with enough wrinkles to rival a prune. I admit, I loved every minute of it. Especially the bit when June, first offered the chance at the youth-restoring formula, is also allowed to choose her victim for the pineal extraction. With a glint in her eye and a curl on her lip, she jerks an arm and shoulder Hubby-wards and snarls, “I choose HIM!”

“An excellent choice,” says Malla approvingly, “you will have beauty and revenge at the same time.”

Just how fantastic is that?

LEECHchoice

BONUS CLIP: The original trailer for The Leech Woman, hinting at the “awesome secret” (awesome?) of youth. Also provided is a helpful definition of just what a leech is. And note the thunky sound of the thunk:

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