“After local moonshine-swilling trapper Lem Sawyer sees a giant creature, people start disappearing. While searching for illegal traps Steve Benton and Nan Greyson, his girl-friend find Lem dying with giant sucker wounds on his body. One couple Liz Walker and Cal Moulton, forced into the water by her enraged husband Dave Walker, gets taken by the leeches. When police refuse to believe Dave’s story, he hangs himself. Soon after this, two more trappers disappear, the local Game Warden Steve Benton gets involved. He and Nan’s father Doctor Greyson realize that the people were taken by the leeches and the leeches live in caves under the swamp. Using dynamite, the four missing bodies are discovered and the leeches are destroyed.” (courtesy IMDB)
This week’s exciting presentation is a swampy classic ripped straight from the dripping fundaments of Roger Corman‘s basement. At last, a film for men in rubber raincoats, made by men in rubber raincoats! I am extremely proud – no, that’s not the word. Ah! I’m extremely hesitant to discuss for your enjoyment Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1957). No doubt you’re thinking with a title like that it’s a parable subtly highlighting how the power elite live off trusting poor people, directed by some genuine left-winger like Ken Loach. Well, it’s not. It’s actually more like Madame Bovary with a monster, so prepare to gawk in amazement as director Bernie Kowalski victimises the vivacious Yvette Vickers – hmmm, Yvette Vickers – ahem, in Attack Of The Giant Leeches!
Attack Of The Giant Leeches is one of the first examples of Sweaty Science Fiction, set in a Southern swamp where super-smart leeches (by Southern standards) snatch up unlucky passersby, keep them alive in their underwater cave lair, and drain their blood when they get thirsty. But it feels like a Russ Meyer movie with horror elements, and there’s a damn good reason for that.
After some very intensive research of my personal archives I discovered the July 1959 edition of Playboy magazine featured Yvette Vickers as Playmate Of The Month (who could blame them?) and the photos were taken by none other than Russ Meyer. His acquaintance with Yvette prompted him to see Attack Of The Giant Leeches, and it was this movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker. He realised sultry films just like this, with nudity added and monsters deleted, could be a life-long meal ticket. He made his first film, The Immoral Mister Teas (1959), that very same year and subsequent films like Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965), and Common Law Cabin (1967) all have similarities with this movie. Yvette assured me that during the photo session, Russ Meyer was ‘a perfect gentleman’. She would definitely qualify as a Russ Meyer character, and Attack Of The Giant Leeches is worth seeing for her performance alone, but there are other things going for it as well. It’s gruesome, gritty, lurid, creepy, dopey, sleepy and Doc. Anything but bashful.
Bernie Kowalski’s direction has real Noir flair, which is a nice way to say the film print I saw was really quite dark. He’d been in show business since the age of five, playing extra parts at Warner Brothers, then learning a lot working for his father who was an assistant director and production manager. Bernie was already directing television when Gene Corman hired him to direct Hot Car Girl (1958), and his ability to finish the film on time and under budget earned him a place in the Corman ensemble. Immediately Roger had him direct Night Of The Blood Beast (1958), followed by Attack Of The Giant Leeches, which had to be shot in eight days with a budget of only seventy thousand dollars.
Playing the leeches were two basketball players, Guy Buccola and Ross Sturlin, who were given the job on two criteria: They were tall enough, and they agreed to make the costumes themselves. Actor Ed Nelson was supposed to make the leech costumes but he dropped out at the last minute. Unfortunate, because Nelson was intimately familiar with blood suckers, having paid five thousand dollars to settle a legal dispute with Robert Heinlein over The Puppet Masters rip-off The Brain Eaters (1958) – an early outing for Leonard Nimoy.
The exteriors were shot at the Los Angeles Arboretum, which provided the outdoor settings for television’s Fantasy Island, as well as many a Tarzan flick. Yvette told me it was quite a hectic and harrowing experience. Co-producer Gene Corman even ended up in the hospital with serious pneumonia as a result of his desire to save a couple of bucks. Many scenes were filmed in and around the water which meant the camera had to be mounted on a raft. In order to move it somebody had to get in the water, for which unions demanded extra money, a water rate, and in typical all expenses pared style the Cormans didn’t want to pay for it. Director Bernie Kowalski pushed the raft around the first day. That was enough for him. He begged Gene to pay the extra money. The next day Gene stripped down, jumped in the water and did it himself, hence pneumonia.
After Attack Of The Giant Leeches, director Bernie wisely slunk back to television where he enjoyed success as executive producer on Mission Impossible and Baretta. During the 1970s he made television movies like Terror In The Sky (1971), Black Noon (1971), and Flight To Holocaust (1977), then he sold his soul to Satan (aka Glen A. Larson) to direct episodes of Knightrider, Airwolf and the like. A terrible fall for the director of Stilleto (1969), Krakatoa East Of Java (1969), Macho Callahan (1970), and the classic snake movie, Sssssss (1973)! That’s awfully difficult to say without a tongue. So, without any further spitting, let’s return to the second explosive half of Attack Of The Giant Leeches, a sequel-friendly ending if I ever saw one, worse than a John Carpenter film! Perhaps the Cormans thought Attack Of The Giant Leeches would emulate the success of The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), which made enough money to generate two sequels. Attack Of The Giant Leeches didn’t earn any sequels, but apparently was good enough for a remake in 2008, which says a lot about remakes.
The culprit responsible for the mutation of the leeches is that career-criminal Atomic Energy. Wouldn’t you know it? This time NASA, at nearby Cape Canaveral, is the source of the leaking radioactivity which causes all the trouble. Radioactivity created countless mutations in the 1950s, going right back to the giant ants in Them! (1954), the movie that started it all, and one in which I also played a role. I received some of the best notices of my career for my performance as the late Ed Blackburn, scattered around the entrance of the ant’s nest. When my ribcage rolled down and came to rest against my own head, audiences both wept with pity and screamed in terror. But I mustn’t get too self-indulgent reliving career highlights, or the editor will hit me with a ruler again. It’s excessive and unnecessary. A simple Post-It note would suffice.
Since I’ve discussed such intellectually stimulating cinema this week, I’m convinced you will show your gratitude by tuning in again next week when I treat you to another gem from the Public Domain for Horror News. Until then, I bid you good night, and remember the old saying – Nobody Ever Lends Money To A Man Who Hits You With A Ruler – Toodles!
Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959)