Why The Leech Woman Pushes Our Buttons
The Movie Set-Up
The old Malla, played by Estelle Hemsley, an 152 year-old former African slave, visits Dr. Paul Talbot’s office because of an advertisement for elderly research volunteers.
The ruthless endocrinologist, played by Phillip Terry, is conducting research on reversing the aging process.
While waiting for the examination, she observes Mrs. June Talbot, played by Coleen Gray, despondent and drunk as a result of Dr. Talbot’s constant verbal abuse.
After overhearing Mrs.Talbot’s telephone conversation about divorcing Dr. Talbot. Malla voices a profound and cryptic statement leaving June puzzled.
When Malla consults with Dr. Talbot she barters some nybee in exchange for money. Nybee is a pollen which slows the aging process and derived from an African plant.
Moreover, she divulges the intent to die among the Nandos, her clan. She also reveals that during their death ceremony the dying elderly woman is transformed into a young woman again. But only for a short period.
The disclosure motivates Dr. Talbot to follow Malla to Africa and seek out the Nandos. Consequently, Dr. and Mrs. Talbot's trip to Africa abruptly changes their lives as well as others.
The Movie Review
The Leech Woman manipulates our emotions and punches our buttons. It makes us stumble all over our moral compass and unearths our shallowness. It persuades us to cast a blind eye and close our ears. It yanks out our tight-lipped thoughts on aging. The truth spills forth. Lo and behold some of us secretly loathe the elderly and feel they are a drain on resources and society.
The older Malla reminds us of fragility, dependency, economically challenged senior citizens, and death. She mirrors the future us and we hate her for doing so.
Even more chilling, despite the fact two men were ritualistically murdered for their melatonin. We still root for the young Malla, played by Kim Hamilton, because the older Malla achieves her wish. And similarly June for the decision to eliminate her tormentor.
But we're also disturbed by the vibrant strong-willed and take charge young Malla too. Who sentences the safari party to death. Citing their outsider status and knowledge of the Nandos' death ceremony as the reason. Ironically, she invited them to witness the ceremony. Likewise her selfishness and loose lips prompted Dr. Talbot's trip to Africa. Furthermore, her desire for June's gold necklace provides the opportunity for David, played by John Van Dreelen, to obtain the dynamite.
Pressing forward, we identify with the discarded June’s hurt. The memories of our own experiences of rejection and poor mating choices come rushing in. After June stabs and leaves David to die in the quicksand. We stomp on our moral backbone and whisper, “You go girl.” Though inwardly we are aware such behavior is atrocious.
Alas our allegiance for June sours. Posing as her fake niece, Terry Hart, June unashamedly flirts with Neil, played by Grant Williams. Her behavior inflames our ire and we cry out for her just punishment.
But in all honesty our disgust is fictitious. We are really angered by June’s awesome self- confidence, assertiveness, and unrepressed sexuality. To borrow a famous quote, “…She persisted…” Once again the film plays with our minds, unmasking our deep-seated sexism.
Not to mention, when Sally, played by Gloria Talbott, in a jealous rage pulls a gun on Terry and orders her to pack and leave town. We are aghast Neil's fiancée is channeling the heavy in a gangster film. Once more the movie rattles our stereotype of femininity. The women tussle and Sally loses. The Law of Karma finally intervenes and sidelines June.
Surprisingly, all the male characters in this movie are just as flawed as the women. Dr. Talbot is sadistic towards June and desires to exploit the Nandos' secret elixir. Neil is unfaithful to Sally. David makes off with the Nandos' ceremonial tools and the nybee. And later rejects June because of her aged appearance. The crook, played by Arthur Batanides, attempts to kill June for her jewelry and money. Apparently, the drunk, played by Murray Alper, is the only person without an agenda.
The Leech Woman calls to mind the prelude to the Ben Casey tv drama. The series of symbols written on the chalkboard: ♂, ♀, ✳, †, ∞: man, woman, birth, death, and infinity. This is the cycle of life we all must face.
Malla is ready to embrace death. While June kills to maintain her youth and beauty. Instead of cultivating her intellect, developing her innate talents, embracing her selfhood, and laughing in the face of society’s standards.
The movie has a great hook: A mysterious elderly woman appears with an incredible tale. What's more it contains loads of arrogance, greed, lust, betrayal, and selfishness to keep you engaged.
If you love to critique old movies there are innumerable gaffes for your roving X-ray eyes: Ill-fitting afro wigs, extras with shoddy make-up jobs, out of sync dancing, and the erroneous inference the pineal gland's location is in the upper back area, etc.
Additionally, this 1960 horror cult classic tackles the issue of ageism. Particularly society’s unfavorable attitude towards older women. Amazingly decades ahead of mainstream popular culture.
However, some scenes of the Nandos played by the extras are deplorable. As the wretched portrayals of minorities and Africa in the movies and other media were quite prevalent at this juncture in history.
The Leech Woman Movie Credits: Directed by: Edward Dein, Produced by: John Greshenson, Story by: Ben Pivar and Francis Rosenwald, Screenplay by: David Duncan.
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© 2017 Irma Cowthern