The Leech Woman isn’t exactly the creative zenith of Universal horror — coming six years after the studio’s last great monster movie of its golden era, Creature from the Black Lagoon — but it might be its zenith of racial representation…not that that’s exactly high praise. It basically means there are some black characters, and they have more to say than just “Yess’m” or “Ooga-booga.”
Unlike the peripheral POCs in The Mummy, The Mummy’s Curse and Son of Dracula, the story here actually revolves around a black character: Malla (Estelle Hemsley), a “magical negro”/”mystical darkie”-type who claims to be over 150 years old. She approaches endocrinologist Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) with an offer: she’ll give him a mystical powder that slows the aging process if he pays for her to return to her childhood homeland in a remote area of Africa, where she plans to die in peace.
Initially skeptical, Paul agrees when he sees (or rather, $EE$) the powder in action. And when Malla informs him that there’s another mysterious ingredient that, when combined with the powder, actually REVERSES aging, he vows to follow Malla to her homeland to figure out that ancient African secret. He convinces his aging wife June (Coleen Gray) to accompany him; she thinks he’s trying to rekindle their loveless marriage, but his ulterior motive is to use her as a guinea pig.
When they get to “the Dark Continent” and catch up to Malla (or rather, are caught by Malla’s tribe), she demonstrates the full potential of the powder by turning herself into a 20-something bombshell (Kim Hamilton), revealing the secret ingredient with which the powder should be combined: hormonal fluid from the human pineal gland. The catch, however, is that the person supplying the hormone is killed in the process.
Despite the cost of a human life, Paul eagerly volunteers June to follow Malla’s example, and before you can say “Remove the obvious age-accentuating makeup,” June is young(ish) again. But the effects don’t last long, and June becomes obsessed with maintaining her new look…by any means necessary. Even after she returns to America, she must find a steady supply of victims — or die trying.
The Leech Woman‘s portrayal of Africa is pretty typical of Hollywood in this era (and to some extent, up to the turn of the century), meaning we get:
- Mystical rites with wildly gyrating natives
- References to indigenous tribes as “savages”
- Stock wild animal footage
- “Good” locals escorting the outsiders who either die or flee in terror (in this case, both)
Despite this parade of clichés and stereotypes, the Malla character is an intelligent, well-spoken, classy lady — the type of black person not often seen in horror films of this era. And despite her willingness to sacrifice her tribesmen willy-nilly and her decision to kill the white interlopers so her tribe’s secret doesn’t get out (which briefly posits her as the de facto villain), she has a veritable heart of gold compared to the Caucasian characters in the film, who are all despicable human beings. Let’s see, we have:
- Paul, a greedy sociopath who’s verbally and emotionally abusive towards his wife and willing to put her life at risk to get rich
- June, a self-hating alcoholic whose naivete allows her to be manipulated by Paul and whose shallowness drives her to kill in order to maintain her beauty
- Neil, June’s attorney, a horny louse who just got engaged but is so immediately smitten by the young June that he’s willing to ditch his fiancee on the spot
- Sally, Neil’s fiancee, who’s so jealous and unwilling to let go of a cheating bastard like Neil that she’s willing to shoot June to maintain her sham engagement
- Bertram (as he’s referred to in the credits, although he’s called David in the film), a shallow guide in Africa who seems like a nice enough guy when he and June kiss, but when the potion wears off and she ages, he drops her like she’s hot
- Some random letch of a guy who eyes June’s gaudy necklace and is willing to assault and murder her to steal it
The characters’ lack of morality is actually a bit refreshing compared to the standard good-versus-evil storyline, but The Leech Woman is told in such a hammy, melodramatic manner, it feels like an extravagant 80-minute soap opera — complete with love triangles, unfettered passion and at least one scene in which someone expresses their inner turmoil by turning their back towards the person they’re talking to and walking several feet away while continuing to hold the conversation.
One interesting element, however, that distinguishes a plot that is basically Dorian Gray meets A Bucket of Blood (and not the creature feature the title implies) is that you could read into it a hint of feminism — or at least, feminine sympathy. At her age-reduction ceremony, Malla breaks down the double standard of aging: “For a man, old age has rewards. If he is wise, his gray hairs bring dignity, and he’s treated with honor and respect, but for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best, she is pitied. More often, her lot is of contempt and neglect. What woman lives who has passed the prime of life that would not give her remaining years to reclaim even a few moments of joy and happiness and know the worship of men?”
Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if this is dismantling the social hypocrisy or reinforcing it, but I prefer to think it’s the former — especially taking into consideration the fact that, although it’s never stated explicitly in the film, the potion seems to work only when a man is sacrificed. When June undergoes her first transformation, Malla asks her to choose any MAN to kill, and the only time the potion doesn’t work is when June chooses a female victim. So, fellas, if you want to be perpetually surrounded by young, attractive women, you might have to die for it.