Attack of the Giant Leeches

1959

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski


Starring: Ken Clark, Yvette Vickers, Jan Shepard, Bruno VeSota

62 minutes


Reviewed by Vance Aandahl

Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 1.5 (followed by an infinity sign and an exclamation mark)



Frosty loves kim chee even though it smells like vomit. My distant relatives in Norway crave lutefisk even though it reeks of putrefaction. Gastronomes assure us that the stinkiest Roqueforts are the most divine. And some movies are so supremely cheesy that they reach an artistic critical mass, pop through an esthetic space-time warp, and become scrumptious cinematic palate-pleasers.

In hopes of making a discovery of this sort, and also because he digs scary monsters, your faithful reviewer has seen nothing this summer but sci-fi horror flicks.

Terror Is A Man and Brides Of Blood are of special interest to film historians, being the first of the cult-classic Blood Island films made in the Philippines during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. The monsters are disappointing, but calendar pin-up girl turned starlet Beverly Hills impressed me with her prodigious cone-shaped mammary glands in Brides Of Blood.


If you live for celebrity scandals, you’ll want to check out Alien 51. A low-budget, made-for-DVD turkey, it features notorious Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss in her first public performance since being released from prison. Heidi plays the wife of the owner of Psychobilly’s Circus, a traveling carnival-tent freak show. Her acting, like that of the rest of the cast, is stupefyingly bad (go back to pandering, Heidi!), but her costumes, makeup, and the huge toy plastic syringe she keeps in her purse are right out of Fellini. Enjoy, enjoy!


If you’re not a film historian or an aficionado of celebrity scandals, then Control Room, Fahrenheit 9/11, and The Corporation are your best bets. The monsters in them will make your blood run cold and disturb your sleep for years to come.

Oddly enough, even though all six of these movies include savory treats, your trusty reviewer has no desire to review them. The film that keeps calling my name is an old favorite, Attack Of The Giant Leeches. It had been nearly ten years since the last time I’d seen it, so late in July I gave in to my deepest and most depraved urgings, hopped on my bicycle, and raced to the library to check it out again. What a delight! I can honestly say that Attack Of The Giant Leeches has never failed to please me. And that brings us back to the thesis posited in my first paragraph. Some movies are so bad they’re good. A definite contender for the honor of being named The Ultimate Cheese, this is a film that flaunts its awfulness like an anorexic supermodel strutting down the runway in a black garbage bag with chunks of foam rubber glued to it.


You can turn on Attack Of The Giant Leeches, close your eyes, and be entertained by the soundtrack alone. Alexander Laszlo’s garish score for symphony orchestra evokes a mood of screeching panic rather than anything so subtle as suspense or dread. Indeed, the hysterically emotional pitch of the music makes it sound like something Bela Bartok might have composed if a sadist had kept injecting him with life-threatening doses of meth cut with a little bit of horse tranquilizer to keep his heart from exploding.

In a bizarre counterpoint to this scream-and-run music, we also get the peppy 1959 rock ‘n’ roll songs that swamp slut Liz Walker plays on her battered old record player whenever she’s in the mood to cheat on Dave, her spineless fatty of a husband.


The camera work matches the music. John M. Nickolaus Jr.’s black-and-white cinematography favors chiaroscuros of shadow and bare-bulb glare when we’re inside Dave’s general store, brooding inkiness when we’re prowling through the Florida swamps at night, and an eerie, washed-out, etiolated paleness during the few brief scenes that take place in daylight hours. When the sun goes down in the cypress groves, a deeply layered darkness swallows the characters, and all we can perceive on the screen are phantom figures – vague, blurry outlines groping blindly through the fearful night. I don’t know for sure, but I would prefer to believe that this wonderfully dismal ambience is the result of canny artistic judgment, not just a lucky break due to the movie’s low budget.

Combine Nickolaus Jr.’s film noir camera work, Laszlo’s histrionic orchestral music, those hoppin’ rock ‘n’ roll songs, the dank Okefenokee setting, and a generous scoop of Faulknerian decadence, then stir in a cupful of the old "ordinary creature turned into a gigantic monster by exposure to radioactivity” sauce, and what you get is a conceptual mix that’s rich and creamy. But it’s not the conceptual mix that brings me back to Attack Of The Giant Leeches again and again, nor is it the feeble, all-too-familiar plot. It’s the characters.


The characters are bodacious. Every character is based on a recognizable stereotype, and what’s magical is that during the shooting of the movie each member of the cast somehow succeeded in becoming not just a run-of-the-mill example of his or her particular stereotype but the perfect Platonic ideal of that stereotype. The actors and actresses deserve credit for this accomplishment, but so do Bernard L. Kowalski (the director), Gene Corman (the producer), and Roger Corman (the executive producer). There is a reason why the name Corman is one of the most revered in the entire history of trashy low-budget Hollywood filmmaking.


The minor characters include Lem Sawyer, a boozy backwater trapper whose warnings no one believes until they find him bleeding to death, unable to speak, his face frozen in bug-eyed terror; Sheriff Kovis, a crusty skeptic who periodically asserts that despite the sucker wounds on Lem’s neck and chest, it must have been a gator that killed him; and Dr. Greyson, a scientist who initially decides that Lem’s wounds were caused by an octopus before refining his analysis and concluding that the culprits are ordinary leeches made gigantic by radioactivity from Cape Canaveral. (Funny, I didn’t realize that NASA was using nuclear rockets back in 1959, or even now, for that matter, but my grasp of science is shaky at best, so we’ll let that go and move quickly to the major characters.)

Our hero is game warden Steve Benton, played with bodacious stiffness, unnaturalness, and B-feature acumen by Ken Clark. Clark looks more like Barbie’s hardened plastic boyfriend Ken than any man I’ve ever seen. Near the end of the movie, Steve shows what he’s made of in a speech to his girlfriend, Dr. Greyson’s daughter Nan. Nan thinks the best way to kill the leeches is to detonate dynamite in the lake where they live.

Speaking slowly in a condescending, paternalistic, aren’t-you-a-silly-little-girl tone, Ken explains to her that using dynamite is impossible for three reasons. First, even though the leeches have killed all the large life forms in the lake, it’s likely that tiny life forms are still present in the water and might be harmed by the explosive concussion. Second, by gosh, he’s paid to prevent the needless slaughter of wildlife. And third, to use dynamite he’d need to get authorization, and to do that he’d have to "come up with a darn good reason.” Apparently the growing list of human fatalities is not a darn good enough reason. Save the protozoa and let the inbred rednecks perish! To exterminate the leeches, Steve chooses a more ecologically sensitive course of action than dynamite detonation, cleverly arming himself with a one-shot speargun and swimming solo deep underwater in his old frogman gear.


As played by Jan Shepard, Nan is a bodaciously bland, nondescript, generic B-feature heroine. Nan argues in a routine fashion with Ken (yawn), and then they kiss and make up in an equally routine fashion (yawn). In several scenes she follows him through the muggy, humid swamp while wearing a dress and shoes that would be more appropriate at a junior prom, her bouffant hairdo glistening strangely in the darkness.

Liz Walker is my favorite character, played with perfect bodacity by Yvette Vickers, a starlet frequently praised by connoisseurs of the genre as the most lusciously torrid sci-fi sex kitten of the 1950’s (even though she appeared in only two films). Indeed, Ms Vickers steals the opening scene of Attack Of The Giant Leeches when she steps through a doorway wearing a black lace bra, leopard-skin-print panties, and a filmy short-short negligee, leans back against the doorjamb with a cigarette hanging loosely from her plump lips, cocks her pelvis, fixes her husband Dave with an icy look, and asks in a purring, cruel, honey-and-smoke whisper, "Whadya want now?”

Dave implores her to turn down the volume on her record player so he can converse with his customers. Four or five leering swamp rats, poachers, and cracker-barrel loafers exchange lecherous winks while she humiliates her hand-wringing husband in front of them. Watching her, these good old boys get really steamed up, and every time I see the scene, I get steamed up too. Yvette Vickers is so hot she still looks good after the leeches have drained her.


Dave is played with bodacious abjection by Bruno VeSota. (I know it looks like a typo, but cross my heart and hope to die – that’s how his name is spelled in the credits.) After she returns to her room, Dave refers to Liz as "that she-cat” and promises the snickering onlookers that one of these days he’ll give her the whuppin’ she needs to get her in line, but it’s obvious from the resignation and stolidity of his facial expression, which never changes even when he’s being belittled, ridiculed, and heaped with verbal abuse, that Dave is a textbook case of passive-aggressive resentment. Dave will fantasize endlessly about teaching Liz a lesson, but he’ll never act on his fantasies. Unless he snaps. Oh oh.

Needless to say, Liz has a lover. Her superstud side dish is Cal Moulton, a slick alpha male played with bodacious macho arrogance by Michael Emmett. With his sleeves rolled up to show off the size and firmness of his biceps, Cal swaggers and brags his way through most of the movie but then turns into a sobbing crybaby when he learns, deep in the swamp, that there are worse fates than taking a shotgun blast in the face or being pulled under by a bull gator.


Which leads us to the most important characters of all – the giant leeches! In this case, "giant” means man-sized, so the leeches are played – bodaciously, of course – by Guy Buccola and Ross Sturlin. In order to look like annelid worms, these courageous stuntmen sacrificed their pride and donned large black plastic trash bags with foam-rubber pads and foam-rubber suckers glued on them. I kid you not. These bags are the worst monster costumes you’ll ever see. Despite the mind-boggling cheesiness of the costumes, or perhaps because of it, the close-up of Cal screaming as one of the leeches latches onto his head and sucks blood from his face is so over the top that I can’t help but feel genuine nausea and horror every time I see it.

Well, folks, that wraps this one up, but there’s always more to come. As August begins, your steadfast reviewer is drooling with anticipation. There’s a new sci-fi horror flick coming out called Outfoxed that’s supposed to have the scariest monsters of all.