Leeches? I don't need no stinkin' leeches.
It's 1959 and American International Pictures (AIP) has decided to get in on the "giant creature" exploitation film genre. As usual, AIP means the "frugal" hand of Roger Corman (executive producer; his brother Gene also produced) is involved. And it shows. Like imitation Corman, the movie probably did well with the drive-in theater crowd, which is what it was supposed to do.
It opens in the middle of the night in a Florida swamp, 30 miles inland from the ocean. A southern moonshine-in-a-jug drinking redneck poacher is out looking for otters. He finds something else. Something chilling. Something that looks like a floating imitation alligator skin mat. He pumps five rifle shells into it but it doesn't die. His mistake. Later his body is found. Whatever did it was something with "intelligence enough" to hunt him down.
Of course, it was one of the titular giant leeches. But they're not like any leeches anyone has ever seen before. See these bloodsuckers (in the words of one eyewitness) are "gray-lookin," "have regular arms...like a man," and "suckers on it" like an octopus. They also have gills.
Now for a word from ActualScience:
Leeches are annelids. Invertebrates related to the earthworm. Leeches are primarily aquatic (usually but not exclusively fresh water areas like lakes, ponds, and swamps). Their bodies are segmented (34 segments, to be precise) with suckers at each end, the anterior for "eating" and the posterior for anchoring itself during feeding. The anterior "sucker" is also used in locomotion on surfaces (free in the water, they undulate their bodies to move). They do not have arms and do not have octopus suckers. They breathe through their skin like other worms (no gills). Some leeches have "teeth," some use a needle-like proboscis, and others swallow their (very small invertebrate) prey whole.
"Jawed" leeches (like the ones in the movie) have three sets of teeth that make a "Y" incision on the victim, though some have only two ("V" shaped incision). When the leech bites, the teeth work like saws and salivary glands exude a substance that anesthetizes the wounds as well as has anticoagulating properties. They do not feed often but gorge when they do, ingesting as much as several times their weight at a time.
Most leeches are only a few centimeters long, though the longest can be up to 40 cm when it's stretched.
Back to the film. Basically, the leeches of the movie are men in cheaply made, but elaborate scuba suits. Their arms have suckers on themleaving wounds like a squid or octopus1 The live in underwater caves (trapped air pockets) complete with stalagmites, misty water, and reeds. Reeds. Growing underground. Some kind of Karst topography they never taught in Earth Science.
There they feed of their prey, keeping them alive until all the blood has been drained from their bodies. The mouth parts are suitably nasty-looking with circular tiers of large teeth, sorta like that page in the World Book Encyclopedia with the picture of the lamprey. The page I hated to look at but always felt compelled to glance at anyway. Of course, these teeth project outward and look fake. Maybe a lamprey would've been a better choice. But the title wouldn't be as catchy.
Of course no one believes the story the poacher told about what he saw: "that thing weren't nothing nature put out there. No sir." Skepticism remains for most of the film and no one sees the leeches until the end. Except the victims. Some even doubt there is anything out there in the swamp. On the other hand, there is a disturbing absence of other creatures. Like "gators." The area "usually has maybe 50-60 bigguns around...whole lotta little ones. Real unnatural." The people should take heed. If one ever wants to know if something is up, look to the animals. Is the dog growling? Maybe a werewolf. And vampires always upset the horses.
The hero of the film is Steve, the game warden. Not really "one of them" (the locals might be best described as "swamp trash"). He considers that the cause of the creatures might be "mineral contamination." Even 1959 teenagers groping in the back-seat of the car wouldn't buy that explanation. The only other one offered (by the doctor) is that maybe the proximity to Cape Canaveral has something to do with it. Because of the "atomic energy" used in the first stages of the rockets. This is also the guy who thought the best way to kill the leeches would be tossing dynamite into the lake.2
Other than giving the production some credit for actually doing some filming outside, there's not much positive to note. Just more of the weird stuff. So more of that. Speaking of the outside stuff, there are numerous underwater shots that, at first glance, seem fairly good given the obviously low budget. Until one notices the obvious streaks and grime on the outside of the (glass or plastic) tank through which the camera is filming. Once noticed, the obviousness of the deception is cause for mild amusementalways a static shot, a cut right before the diver gets too close to the glass, everything staged to allow for the "trick" to work. But they were probably counting on the somewhat dim lights of a drive-in, scratchy prints, and other "distractions" keeping the kids from taking note.
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, who primarily worked in television (the good, the bad, and the ugly), the film does move along pretty well (only 62 minutes long), though it's difficult to determine whether it was merely a reflection of his television work or the fast pace Corman often demanded. The writer was Leo Gordon, who did more acting than writing during his career, which may not have been a bad thing. The very end is a bit odd. There's almost a pause like they thought something else should happen. Apparently they gave up or forgot what it was because it just ends.
The most interesting thing is that almost a third of the film has more to do with what seems to be some poor attempt to imitate Tennessee Williams southern gothic (if he had every written some along the lines of "Hillbillies in the Swamp"). Fat Dave Walker (kind of a poor man's Victor Buono) and his wifethe local sexpot (complete with robes, kimonos, skin lotion, and an ever-present cigarette)is having marital problems. Face it: he's hen-pecked and cuckolded. He's only in the picture because her first husband was a wife-beating drunk who was arrested after robbing a gas station (too drunk to run). Dave was the first one she hooked up with afterward.
And it's probably no secret to anyone (Dave, too, whether he wants to admit it or not) she's cheating on him...
"Liz, baby. It's Cal, honey."
"You want something Cal?"
"I shure do, honey."
(they leave leeringly).
Then there's the inevitable blow up between husband and wife:
"You answer me, you dirty old man."
"I ain't dirty, Liz baby."
"'Liz baby,' 'Liz honey.' Can't you think of anything else to say, stupid?"
".... I love you, Liz baby."
"Get out. Get out you fat pig."
Perhaps not enough to inspire someone to emote a loud "Stella!" But this is AIP territory.
Now someone could try to turn that angle into some sort of attempt to legitimize the film as something worthy of study. The cuckolded, impotent husband chasing the wife and her lover into the swamp; a journey through the darkness and the tangled trees and reeds of his betrayal. Carrying the long gun, a substitute for his wronged, rejected, and enfeebled manhood. Planning to not only (re)assert his masculinity and identity through vengeance on both the object of his desire and betrayal but the one guilty of causing the betrayal. The punishment meted out via the "substitute" and thus a means to escape the emasculation he suffered because of the betrayal.
Someone could try that. But it's not that kind of movie. If you do like cheesy effects, mutant scuba leeches, and can have fun even without a jumpsuited guy and his two wisecracking robot friends in the corner of the screen, by all means enjoy. It's that kind of movie. Pass the popcorn and chuckle.
1The doctor explaining things: "...you see the octopi uses its suction discs to hold its prey." Yes. "octopi." "its."
2Supposedly so much that it "would've killed a full grown whale." One of those swamp-dwelling fresh water Florida whales, no doubt. The charge also has one of the longer fuses in cinema. It takes almost 45 seconds of screen time to blow up. In real time it might be different but waiting 45 seconds while watching little happen (the boat is rowed ashore, Steve pulls up in the truck, they pull the boat ashore, they move away from the water's edgeget on with it and explode already!) seems much longer. An excellent demonstration of this effect is in Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) when the characters (and viewers) are forced to experience a minute of silence and inaction (slightly over a minute if memory serves). It becomes almost unbearable. Of course, that was Bergman. There was a pay off there.
Late additions: This apparently did air as an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." According to Satellite News (the official site located at www.mst3kinfo.com), the actress playing Liz (Yvette Vickers, born Vedder) was the July 1959 Playboy Playmate. Several actors were almost electrocuted when the water tank collapsed. The exteriors were filmed at the Arboretum in Arcadia, California. Years later, "Fantasy Island" would also use that location.
(Source: DVD double feature with Roger Corman's 1960 The Wasp Woman, facts and dates checked at the imdb.com, leech info culled from various websites)