THE LEECH WOMANs Revenge
The Leech Woman, as I've said, is the most complex of the three films in bringing together the self-abjection and drunken sloppiness of the despised and neglected middle-aged wife with the science fictional rejuvenation fantasies that will supposedly--and superficially--do away with the need to resolve social problems that are far more than skin deep. The plot deserves a somewhat detailed recounting not only for its explicit and ongoing address of the humiliation and abjection suffer by middle-aged women, and the justified rage they feel and often express in excessive acts, but also for its recurrent dramatization of the disgust and dread their physical presence engenders in men.
June Talbot is forty-something and a self-pitying yet self-aware drunk. (Drinking in these films, for middle-aged women, is clearly coded to connote disgusting and excessive behavior and physical sloppiness.) At the film's beginning, a nasty confrontation with her endocrinologist husband at his office convinces her to give him the divorce he wants. He is visited, however, by a wizened, mysterious African woman named Mala, who proves to him that she has the secret to an age-retarding powder and a rejuvenating serum. She persuades him to finance her journey back to the Nandos tribe from which she was taken over 140 years before by slavers. Greedy for wealth and knowledge, the doctor cancels his divorce plans, professes his need for June (which only goes so far as his need for a human guinea pig), and, guided by a local hunter, they both take off after Mala into the wilds of a stock-footage African jungle. During the trek, June wonders why her husband is so cold toward her, only to be reassured rather easily by a cursory, contemptuous, and momentary display of affection. Soon, however, June realizes his intentions to use her as an experimental subject and runs off into the jungle, to be saved and brought back by the handsome white hunter. Shortly after, the three are captured and brought to the Nandos village, where Mala tells them that they will learn her secret but must die when she dies the next morning.
That night the three outsiders watch a ritual ceremony with Mala at its center. The scene and the speech that prefaces it are extraordinary. In the midst of this low-budget and ridiculously colonial vision of "primitive" African tribal life, the words of old and wizened Mala lose none of their resonance, righteousness, and power. She says to those who watch:
"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 prime of her life who would not give her remaining years to reclaim even a few moments of joy and happi- ness 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 flower- ing of love, beauty--before death."
The secret of Mala's rejuvenation is revealed. Nipe (the pollen from a rare jungle orchid) is mixed with the pineal hormones of a male victim, who must be stabbed fatally at the base of his neck with a special ring that extracts the fluid. The now youthful (and lighter-skinned) Mala rises beautiful, proud, and imperious and tells them that while they must die with her the next morning, the night is theirs, and she offers June her youth again. Morally horrified by the murder necessary for rejuvenation, June refuses, but her husband urges her to accept as a cover for his and the guide's escape. Cursorily, he tells her that, of course, he will return and rescue her. June now clearly grasps her situation, and she agrees. And when she is told she may pick any male to supply the pineal hormone, she surveys the village men, then wheels around and chooses her husband. (Mala says: "You have made an excellent choice. You will have beauty and revenge at the same time.")
June is transformed into a gorgeous young woman and the guide is entranced. He finds a way for them to escape, bringing with them the pouch containing the nipe and the lethal ring. They make love in the bush. June, however, starts to age, as the effect of the serum is temporary, and each time it wears off it leaves the user older than before. The amorous guide not only proves fickle, but is also horrified and disgusted. He withholds the nipe from June and also tries to leave her. In the process, he becomes trapped in quicksand, and June--extracting the pouch as the price of his rescue--coolly leaves him to die. She returns to America as her own niece, although she resumes her own persona when she ages and must find a new victim. As her niece, she romances the young family lawyer whose fiancée, Sally, is determined not to let the intruding sexpot interfere with her marital future. As herself, out to find a source of pineal hormone, June dresses in widow's weeds adorned with expensive, visible jewelry, frequents the seamy side of town, and picks up a man who takes her to a secluded spot, admires her jewels, asks "You dig young guys, honey?", and asks if she has any relatives, and then attempts to strangle her. Instead, she murders him. The film's denouement occurs after Sally, brandishing a gun, visits the "niece" (now clad in lamé lounge pajamas, and icing champagne for a tryst) and warns her to stay away from the lawyer. June scuffles with Sally, knocks her out, extracts the girl's pineal hormones for future use, and then begins a romantic evening with the young lawyer. The police arrive--apparently some of June's identification was found near her previous victim's body--and during the questioning, June begins to age. She excuses herself and mixes the nipe with Sally's hormones, but the female pineal fluid doesn't work. "I killed Sally for nothing," she says in horror. Downstairs the police hear a crash and a scream and break into June's bedroom. From the open window, they see her body--dead and incredibly decrepit on the ground below.
The Leech Woman and its companions are extraordinary texts--no less for their explicit address of the horrors of female aging in a patriarchal society than for an awe-inspiring obviousness that threatens to strike the film exegete dumb. Indeed, insofar as The Leech Woman lets its real cultural fears "all hang out," it thwarts the scholarly elaboration of psychic processes of displacement and condensation, of poetic processes of metaphor and metonymy. The hermeneutic challenge of the film and its earlier companions comes not from their breathtaking literalness, their astonishing demonic prosody, but rather from the complex allegories of reading they suggest. That is, the figuration of such excessive and excess women prompts us, as James Clifford writes of ethnographic allegory, to say of these films "not 'this represents, or symbolizes, that' but rather, 'this is a (morally charged) story about that.'" The story here is about aging, desire and the body, and its moral charge is derived from the double standard of which Mala speaks, a standard that elicits a complex of engendered emotions from both the women and the men who bear it: fear, humiliation, abjection, shame, power, rage, and guilt. Furthermore, this story and its moral and emotional charge have not changed very much since the 1950s and 1960s; it can be read across the history of American film, beginning perhaps with the breakdown of the extended family (an effect of the rise of urban centers), but coming to the foreground in the post-World War II period, which marked the cultural repression of a great many working and independent wartime women back into the patriarchal home, now dislocated to the featureless, cultureless suburbs. This period seems marked by the phenomenological awareness that many middle-class women, barring motherhood, had nothing to do, an awareness that war brides were aging, possibly unfulfilled and "frustrated." Coincidentally, this period also saw the proliferation of high technologies developed during the war throughout the public sphere, where they intersected with, among other institutions, medicine and the biological sciences to create a science fictional milieu that gave rise not only to the generic emergence of science fiction feature films but also to a notion of a technologized and, ultimately, perfectible human body.
Indeed, although it is true that women have "come a long way, baby" since the end of World War II, the increasingly technologized quotidian life of our culture since the war suggests that a phenomenology of contemporary body consciousness would reveal that the "progress" of coming "a long way, baby" is intimately tied to fantasies of rejuvenation and agelessness. With "advances" in electronic and medical technologies and new aerobicized forms of Taylorism come the promise of bodily overhauls, replacement parts, and a fulfilled, if rigidly disciplined, existence as an ageless "lean, mean machine." Hence, for heterosexual women, there has been an increasing emphasis on looking--if not staying--young and an increasing contempt for those "undisciplined" bodies unable or unwilling to "pull themselves together," "stay in shape," or regularly avail themselves of cosmetic surgery. Death Becomes Her says it all. Hence also, for both heterosexual and homosexual men, the current ideal is the ageless "hard body" of the "cyborg" (whose pecs--Donna Haraway notwithstanding--are certainly not those of a liberated woman ). Despite the sacrificial ending of Terminator 2, the Terminator is never terminal; what resonates is the immortal promise: "I'll be back."