October 30, 2014

The Leech Woman's Kiss of Death: The Darker Shades of Coleen Gray

Poster - The Leech Woman (1960)
Now Playing: The Leech Woman (1960)

Pros: Memorable performances by Coleen Gray and Estelle Hemsley in strong female roles
Cons: Meandering script spends too much time on the build-up and not enough on June Talbot as the Leech Woman; the ending is forced and rushed

Special Note: This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's fall blogathon, "Forgotten Stars." Check it out and see how many names you can recall.

Lord help me, but I couldn't avoid noticing the media storm that recently erupted over Renee Zellweger's new look. With all the truly concerning issues in the news, it's tempting to just dismiss this as yet another trivial celebrity tempest-in-a-teapot, scarcely worthy of any serious person's time and attention. But then, as someone who is a bit age-challenged, it strikes a chord.

I don't want to join the ranks of those who have dumped on Rene for supposedly rejecting natural aging and setting an impossibly high standard for the rest of us. She did what she thought was right for her. On the other hand, she debuted her new look in a very public way, and her explanation that it's all due to healthy living and new love is, well, somewhat hard to believe. Her new face has become a sort of Rorschach test for the public. We see in her transformation what we want to see: a strong, proactive woman who's unafraid to take charge of her life and remake herself, or a somewhat sad, declining celebrity who, like so many before her, has made a Devil's bargain with the glamor industry to keep her looks and fame going for a while longer.

The CMBA Fall Blogathon Forgotten Stars
The glaringly obvious fact of the matter is that no one likes getting old. It has to be especially difficult for someone in the entertainment industry, who relies so much on his or her looks to stay popular and get work. In a culture where almost everything is acceptable, getting old is not. Inevitably, those distinctive features and quirks that make us so cute, endearing and approachable in our 20s and 30s get more pronounced and less endearing as we age. Renee decided to do something about it. It's hard to fault her.

Except that, in the end, you can't stop Father Time ® and you can't fool Mother Nature ™. We're not androids with replaceable parts (at least not yet). Even the best, most expensive surgeries and treatments leave us looking just a little unnatural to start, with no where to go but down. Once you start down that path, it's always just another nip here or a tuck there to keep looking like you. And pretty soon, you're staring in the mirror and seeing Joan Rivers or Mickey Roarke staring back, and you're wondering "where did it all go wrong?"

In Universal-International's The Leech Woman (1960), an aging, alcoholic housewife, June Talbot (Coleen Gray), transforms into a take charge kind of woman who manages to jettison an abusive husband while discovering a unique way to recover lost youth and beauty. But this being a sci-fi-horror-thriller with overtones of a morality play, she too ends up wondering "what went wrong?" as Father Time and Mother Nature get together to exact a terrible vengeance on this woman who dabbled in things better left alone © ® ™.

Lobby card - The Leech Woman - Jungle encounter
Paul is drafted into the pineal donor program.
At Leech Woman's opening, we're introduced to endocrinologist and world-class jerk Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry), who has his own selfish plan: get rich selling anti-aging cures to wealthy older women and divorce his wife, whose whining and neediness is cramping his style. A withered old African woman, Malla (Estelle Hemsley), comes to the office to consult the doctor. She claims to be over 150 years old, and his initial tests do indicate extreme old age. His interest is piqued when she attributes her longevity to a mysterious anti-aging powder, Nipe, that her mother gave her when she was a child. She wants to return to her village to secure an additional substance that, mixed with the powder, will actually reverse the aging process. If the doctor wants in on the secret, he will have to help her get back to her people, the Nandos.

The skeptical doc at first begs off, but after Malla ingests some of the powder, subsequent tests verify its miraculous properties. With $$ in his eyes, Talbot announces his discovery to June and family lawyer Neil Foster (Grant Williams). The divorce is off, and June is to come to Africa with him to uncover Malla's secret of eternal youth. The desperate woman takes her husband's sudden change of heart at face value. However, once she sets out on the jungle expedition with Paul and guide Bertram Garvey (John Van Dreelen), she learns there's a catch: she's to be the guinea pig to see if the youth treatment really works. If she's going to be a guinea pig, then hubby is going to pay a steep price.

Vintage postcard, St. Augustine, Fla.
If only Paul had taken his wife to St. Augustine instead...
The group is captured by Malla's tribe, and they're finally allowed to witness the secret of youth restoration in a typical B movie jungle ceremony full of witch doctors, skulls, and smoking cauldrons. There's another catch-- the rare orchid powder must be mixed with the fresh pineal gland fluid of a healthy young male to achieve its dramatic age-reversing effects. The witch doctor uses a ring outfitted with a curved, faceted blade to extract the fluid from the back of a young local’s neck. Once old Malla takes the compound, the smoke billows around the throne where she sits. When it clears, a beautiful young woman (Kim Hamilton) has seemingly taken her place.

The smokin' hot version of Malla ominously tells the group that they will never take the secret back to the States, and when she dies, they die too. Meanwhile they can have anything they wish except for their freedom. Paul asks that June be allowed to partake of the serum. June at first resists, not wanting to take another life, but when Paul makes it clear that the ceremony is to divert the tribe's attention to allow him and Garvey to escape, she gets a brilliant idea-- what better pineal donor than her selfish, abusive husband?

Just like Malla, a young, beautiful June emerges from the ceremony thanks to her dead husband. Meanwhile, Garvey sneaks some sticks of dynamite from the expedition’s captured provisions and lights a few sticks to cover their escape. As they make their way back to civilization, Garvey becomes very enamored of the rejuvenated June. Like the cat that swallowed the canary, he shows her that he also made off with the Nipe powder and ritual ring. Soon, they uncover another secret that Malla hinted at during the ceremony -- the treatment doesn't last very long. When June wakes up and discovers that she has reverted to a wrinkled old crone, she begs Garvey to help her. Stunned and disgusted by her appearance, he takes off into the jungle with June in hot pursuit. Bad move.

Garvey stumbles into quicksand, and in desperation trades the pouch of powder for June's help. As she pulls him free, she stabs him in the back of the neck for his pineal fluid and allows him to sink back into the muck.

Lobby card - The Leech Woman - June is cornered by the police
"So detective, it's now a crime to wear
a silver lamé dress around the house?"
Looking even younger and more beautiful, she flies back home, where she introduces herself to Neil and his new fiancée Sally (Paul's former assistant, played by Gloria Talbott) as June's niece Terry. June aims to get Neil for herself, but things get complicated as she realizes that without a steady supply of fresh pineal glands, she will almost literally dry up and blow away. She's trapped herself in the ultimate Devil's bargain and now she has to go on the hunt.

Universal-International made The Leech Woman as a second feature to accompany their U.S. release of Hammer's Brides of Dracula. It's tempting to write it off as just another exercise in low-budget movie making with sexist overtones typical of the era. Women were seldom allowed to be outright monsters, but when they were, their evil-doings were usually less ambitious and more self-centered. No designs on the world for these monstrous women -- instead it was all about keeping themselves eternally young and beautiful by draining the lifeblood of hapless victims (e.g., Dracula's Daughter, The Wasp Woman, Countess Dracula). The only time a woman can be truly evil, these films seem to say, is when her vanity is at stake. Now that's insulting.

But looking at it another way, The Leech Woman breaks the old sexist mold, empowers its female title character, and gets a dig or two in about the unjust inequality of the sexes. June starts out the film being an emotional punching bag for Paul, and we cringe when she happily agrees to accompany the a**hole on his safari. But she soon sheds the role of willing victim, turns the tables and takes the ultimate youthful power ride at his expense. She may not have thought it all the way through, but at least she's trying to take control of her life. The price of control is to become a monster, but the men in her life pushed her in that direction.
Publicity still - Coleen Gray as the Leech Woman
"Whoa, I can't believe my insurance doesn't
cover pineal gland extractions!"

During her rejuvenation ceremony, Mala solemnly sums up the age-old frustrations that turn some women into vain monsters:
"For a man, old age has rewards. If he is wise, his gray hairs bring dignity and he is 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. What woman lives who has passed the the prime of life that would not give her remaining years to reclaim even a few of moments of joy and happiness, and know the worship of men? For the end of life should be its moment of triumph. So it is with the aged women of Nandos -- a last flowering of love and beauty before death."
The film's female characters all “flower” in their own ways: Malla claims the life of a young villager as her right as a matriarch of Nandos; June starts out weak and needy, but soon learns to take what she wants in short order; even Sally has the gumption to confront June/Terry and fight for her man. In contrast, the men are greedy cowards, or in the case of Neil Foster, clueless male eye-candy for the newly empowered June to desire.

According to sci-fi movie critic Bill Warren, Coleen Gray’s performance in an unusually strong female role was one of the few saving graces of the film:
"[C]oleen Gray’s performance is surprising. She’d rarely had a starring role before, and her few leads were mostly of the colorless hand-wringing 'Oh-Jed-don’t-go' type, or cheap molls, or the heroine’s girlfriend. She’d been in films since 1947, and in addition to starring in minor As and some Bs, such as The Sleeping City (1950), The Fake (1953), Twinkle in God’s Eye (1955) and The Black Whip (1956), she also appeared in Kiss of Death (1947), Red River (1948) and The Killing (1956). Her other genre films include The Vampire and Phantom Planet; she’s uninteresting in both. She made only a few more movies after The Leech Woman.
  Perhaps the strange, quasi-sympathetic role of June Talbot liberated or energized her; it’s one of the few really memorable performances of her career, and the greatest strength of the film." [Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Volume II, McFarland, 1988]
Filmfax magazine, No. 136, Winter 2014
Gray’s roles might not have been particularly energizing, but she got them with a one-two combination of pluck and luck that reads like the most hackneyed of Hollywood cliches. Born Doris Bernice Jensen, she grew up on dairy farms in Nebraska and Minnesota. Doris followed a boyfriend who had been drafted into the service out to California, and eventually wound up in Los Angeles. She auditioned for a part in a play at a small Hollywood theater (she’d done the play in high school), got the part, and sure enough, was noticed by a talent scout for Twentieth Century-Fox.

Like so many attractive aspiring actresses of the time, she was nearly swallowed up and spit out again by the crazy, impersonal studio system. But she possessed a guilelessness and fearlessness that baled her out on several occasions. In a Filmfax magazine interview, she relates how she almost lost a part in Red River (1948) with the legendary director Howard Hawks and John Wayne. She had successfully auditioned with Hawks for the role of Fen, but then learned that since the studio hadn’t okayed the audition in advance, they weren’t going to let her do it. She courageously made an appointment with studio head Darryl Zanuck, who was a fellow Nebraskan, and got him to green light the role. [Anthony Petkovich, “Gray Matter: A Delightfully Candid Interview with the Ever Youthful Coleen Gray,” Filmfax, No. 136, Winter 2014]

Of her “energizing” role as the Leech Woman, she remembers being amused:
“Loved it! It’s so hokey. We had such a fun time making it. We would laugh over it, and then we’d have to get serious. I mean, the pineal gland is in the middle of the head, so there’s no way by hitting someone in the back of the neck with this little ring with the spur on it that you’re going to get anything from the gland. The whole thing was hokey. And we’d laugh our heads off. But then we’d sober up and get to work.”
Publicity still - Coleen Gray
For Coleen, whether the work was on the set of Red River, Kiss of Death, The Phantom Planet, or The Leech Woman, she was above all a professional: “[E]verything I did, whether it was low-budget and/or a bad script, if you are going to do it and they’re paying you, you better believe in it and do it right.” [Ibid.]

After a promising start in Red River and in some of the most iconic and memorable film noirs of the 40s and 50s, she settled into what some would call Hollywood mediocrity. But her work ethic kept her going, and when the movie roles dried up, she transitioned successfully to television, appearing on some of the great series of the 60s and 70s like Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Perry Mason, Mannix and McCloud. And when that was not fulfilling enough, she and her husband devoted their energies to helping prisoners through the Prison Fellowship outreach program.

She’s still going strong at the age of 91. If that’s not the secret of eternal youth, I don’t know what is.

Update: Ms. Gray passed away on August 3, 2015, at the age of 92. Rest in peace Coleen, you made your own special mark on the movies and gave us many fond memories.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


For her there could be no love... only endless horror!


  1. Awesome post! I knew her name, but nothing much else about her. I loved your opening to the post - very relevant spin on what sounds like a wild movie. I'm glad to know Colleen had fun making it.

    1. It does seem like Coleen managed the perfect balance, taking your work seriously while at the same time having fun...

  2. My own favorite Colleen Gray film is Nightmare Alley. She's terrific in that, so touching and yet a strong character. Love The Leech Woman myself, it's great campy fun.

    1. I can't believe I didn't mention Nightmare Alley in my post! Her best, most visible role perhaps, one that had every potential of launching her into stardom.

  3. Coleen shows up in so many favourite movies and TV episodes. Looks like I'll have to add "The Leech Woman" to the list. Sounds like a hoot.

    1. It is indeed worth a look. Pairing it with Brides of Dracula, which they did in the original release, is a stretch however. A much better drive-in duo is The Leech Woman and U-I's Monster on the Campus (which I wrote about not too long ago).

  4. I've never even heard of "The Leech Woman", but it sounds like a Must See.

    That was a thoughtful monologue you posted, about women getting older. That makes me want to see this movie even more. :)

    1. That's what this blog is all about, finding all that's thought-provoking and poignant hiding underneath the crazy plots and cheesy effects... : )

  5. Interesting how there was a Snow White version of this so recently (with Charlize Theron). But this one sounds much better!

    1. Snow White and the Huntsman? Yeah, I managed to avoid all of the updated fairy tale CGI fests that were popular for a couple of years. So I can't absolutely guarantee it, but I strongly suspect Leech Woman is a lot more fun (and shorter).

  6. I adore Coleen Gray, Brian, and I absolutely loved your post. And I love The Leech Woman, too! It's doubly special to me because it was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which is actually where I first saw it), and it was an absolute scream. Have you seen it?

    1. Thanks so much! I haven't seen the MST3K version, but I can imagine the crew had a great time with it.

  7. I'm with Karen, I first saw Leech Woman (and Phantom Planet) on MST3k, but she still leaves quite an impressions. She's great in Nightmare Alley, too. Glad to hear she's still kicking!

    1. In the same Filmfax interview she talks about working on the set of The Phantom Planet with Richard Kiel (as the Solarite monster). There's no disdain for these later B movie and TV roles, just an appreciation for the work and an ability to have fun on the set. What a great attitude!

  8. This was one of my favorite posts of the blogathon! I've never seen this movie, but your review made me want to! I also loved how you related the film to aging/stars today. It's interesting how many of the "forgotten stars" found a second life in television. Wonderful to hear that Gray is still going strong! Thanks for a fun post!

    1. Forgotten Stars is a great topic, but of course I also had to do something horror-related for Halloween. : ) Yes, television kept so many careers going, and the pattern was the same for many actors and actresses -- secondary leads & supporting roles in A pics, more of the same in the Bs with a smattering of early TV, and then jump in headfirst into TV in the 50s and/or 60s and never look back.

  9. I would go so far as to call THE LEECH WOMAN a clever satire. It's a perfect choice for the blogathon and for Halloween. Well done!

    1. Thanks Rick! I confess I was somewhat disappointed that the group didn't vote for a more Halloween-oriented theme for the blogathon, but then, I can usually find a way to insert Halloween and horror into almost any topic. : )