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July 2011

The Giant Leeches

cast: Ken Clark, Yvette Vickers, Jan Shepard, Michael Emmet, and Tyler McVey

director: Bernard L. Kowalski

62 minutes (PG) 1959
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cayman Classic DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Attack Of The Giant Leeches
The Giant Leeches

Devotees of mild sleaze might recall the late Yvette Vickers as a Playboy centrefold, the 'Beat Playmate of the Month' for July 1959. Open up the issue, and she's sprawled wanton in a rumpled shirt - nothing else, on a pale orange polyester couch, her blonde hair tousled. A drained bottle of wine, albums and album sleeves littering the carpet, beside her discarded shoes, implying the aftermath of a night's hard partying. She's snapped on the point of stylishly dropping a stylus onto an album slow-revolving on the turntable, cool jazz probably. Miles Davis, maybe...

The pure curves of her bare bottom form a contoured switchback. The centrefold and the relatively coy photo-spread on the following pages - just a glimpse of one peak-a-boo breast, were shot by Russ Meyer, who has his own cult trash-movie portfolio. But Vickers had other lives. Elsewhere, she was honky-tonk girl Honey Parker in Attack Of The Fifty-Foot Woman (1958). And here she's Liz-Baby, a slutty vamp who can make brushing her teeth look like she's performing oral sex. She's something like Carroll 'Baby Doll' Baker, a Lolita flaunting repressed sexual heat like deleted scenes from Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

As she explains to her no-good lover, her first wastrel abusive husband bungled a crime spree and wound up in the big house. So she's settled for safe, but tediously dull store-owner Dave Walker (Bruno VeSota). But "Oh, don't bother me," she sneers when he oglingly attempts to exert marital authority. "Someday I'm gonna give that she-cat the whoppin' she's been askin fer," he mutters. But when Walker is out making grocery-deliveries hunky Cal (Michael Emmet) comes sniffing around Liz. "You want something, Cal?" she pouts. "Ah sure do honey," he leers in testosterone-laden double-entendre. It's deep in the Florida everglades. Trackless back-channels of weirdly alien rainforest growth where the Seminole Native Americans held out against white settler incursions, and waged a guerrilla war for a generation. The swamp-water bubbles and steams, but what is it that hick poacher Lem puts five shotgun slugs into from his row-boat? It "won't nothin' nature put there" he claims.

Later, as bullfrogs croak, and ragtime-boogie piano plays in the drinking den, he tell his tale, it has a single eye "like one of them octopus-things." Incomer State game-warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark) is the eco-friendly good-guy with conservationist ethics, intent on stamping out the inhumane trapper's snares, coming up hard against the hostility of the in-bred swamp-trash locals. Nan Greyson (Jan Shepard) is his nice girlfriend. Her daddy (Tyler McVey) is the local doc, who provides expert-speak scientific rationale as required by the plot. When Lem's body is dredged from the water, Sheriff Kovis refuses to investigate the dubious death beyond 'misadventure'. But could the unfortunate Lem have been killed by an octopus? Doc gravely agrees it's a 'possibility'.

Soon after, Walker espies Liz and Cal canoodling in his open-top down by the bayou and decides it's time for the threatened 'whoppin'. He pursues them with his shotgun, and they run, deeper into the sweltering mire until he forces them neck-deep into the murky water to teach them a lesson, as they plead and accuse each other. Cal proving less of a hero than she'd imagined. Walker's on the point of relenting when they're grabbed by the 'monster'. Naturally the cops arrest the jealous husband. He hangs himself in the cell. So who - or what, took the lover's bodies? Benton organises a search-party with torches and hound-dogs. But good ole boys Slim Reed and Old Dan, glugging moonshine from a liquor-jug, blame some old bull 'gator. Lured by the $50 (each) reward they head out by boat hunting the lost lovers.

But there are no mud-prints. And oddly, although the waters should be crawling with them, there are no alligators either. "Nothin' scares 'gators; animal or human," they falter warily. Abruptly there are blurrily indistinct underwater shots, and in a swirl of suckers and tentacles (the never-properly glimpsed leeches are played by two men in suction-cup covered suits which don't quite fit over their oxygen-cylinders!). The bleary hunters are dragged away to the cave where Cal and Liz are prisoners languishing in the moist darkness of a trapped air-pocket, still alive, but being drained of their blood by their monstrous captors. Leeched of their life-blood in fact!

Which is what leeches do; but on a vampiric scale. And if Liz's fate is intended as bad-girl retribution, it's also arbitrary and seriously in need of a moral compass. The situation escalates. Doc decides to dynamite the lake, in spite of Benton's concerns about its effects on the eco-system (of course, he doesn't say 'eco-system'. This is 1959! But we get the gist). Nan's affections are torn. The explosion disrupts the cave, and three bodies float to the surface. Not shot. Not drowned. But drained of blood, and dead only hours´┐Ż Liz is still missing. And "whatever killed them is still in that lake," warns Doc.

In frogman scuba-gear, Steve, and his buddy Mike, grapple with one of the giant leeches, wounding it with his spear-gun. When the cynical cops finally drag Liz's body out of the lake it even shocks them, "what can have done that? Look at her face!" Now here comes Doc's opportunity to pontificate the mock-science justification. "Maybe the proximity of Cape Canaveral's got something to do with it?" he muses. "The rocket station?" prompts Nan, in case anyone's missed the connection. "Well, they use atomic energy in their first stages of launching, not all of them have been successful," he points out (inaccurately). She picks up the theme. And some nearby animal life was "close enough to feel the effects of radio-active energy?" He nods sagely. "A mutation, a type of giganticism." This time Steve has no objections. To hell with the eco-system! With his moral dilemma resolved, and Nan's devotion restored, after the explosion two dead monsters float to the surface in a welter of slimy suckers. But, in true shocker tradition, the lake-surface ripples over the closing shots to suggest that just maybe there are more lurking nasties in the depth of the everglades.

The print has not endured well, and would benefit from some digital cleaning up. The blacks are grey and the greys paler still. Alexander Laszlo soundtracks some highly dated quavery electro-theramin effects to emphasise the creepiness. And it's trash, of course. What else? It's zero-budget rapid-turnaround exploitation of the type Roger Corman specialises in. But it's reasonably well thought-through, the characters fairly rounded. And it stands up favourably to comparison with current made-for-TV-movie fodder, its modern equivalent. As for Yvette, the attendant Playboy blurb fills in details about her, stressing her hipster lifestyle. It informs sleaze-hounds that she's one of "the girls who inhabit the Beat coffee-houses in Hollywood," the music of Prokofiev "drives me out of my skull," she likes Dylan Thomas, and she's "somewhat of a nut" about the health-food they serve up at 'The Aware Inn' organic restaurant.

Elsewhere, Stephen King claims that when he was 13, Vickers was one of his 'matinee idols'. Later, she could be seen in TV episodes of Dragnet, Mike Hammer (1958), Bat Masterson (1959) and as 'Vera' in The Asphalt Jungle (1961). For her last movie part she was credited as 'neighbour' in psycho-thriller Evil Spirits (1991). Then she cut her own self-released CD, Tribute To Charlie & Maria (2000), worked as an estate agent, and contributes the voice-over to the 2007 Warner DVD-edition of Attack Of The Fifty-Foot Woman. All of which is made melancholy by the sad circumstances of her death. She died of a heart-attack, although the exact date is uncertain.

What is known is that some time late-April 2011 the pile of yellowing mail cramming her mailbox alerted her Benedict Canyon neighbours. By the time the door of her dilapidated Beverly Hills house was forced, the mummified remains of her body indicated she'd been dead several months. Such unpleasant details shouldn't be allowed to detract from her life. She was one of many B-movie scream-queens with wannabe never-realised ambitions. Yet she had her moments; her career highs. The insolent feisty attitude, the glowing vibrant health, and yes - the beauty is still there in those glossy colour Playboy photos. Watch this film. And she's still here...

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