May 31, 2009

Nightmares From The Pit of Corruption!


Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Ken Clark – Steve Benton
Yvette Vickers – Liz Walker
Bruno VeSota – Dave Walker
Jan Shepard – Nan Greyson
Michael Emmet – Cal Moulton
Gene Roth – Sherriff Kovis

Bernard L. Kowalski’s 1959, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a dank, bleak nightmare, a true descent into a world that drips black swamp water from hanging moss and stinks of fetid rot and blood; a universe where everyone has a slime of fear sweat. Overlooked and completely dismissed by critics since it’s release, it seems forever destined to be cast into the dreaded “cult classic” category (if that fortunate), doomed to the hell of the Wall-Mart bargain bin. It deserves far more, as do its director and cast.

Yvette Vickers

Filmed in the Florida swamps, a true land of massive heat and prehistoric visions, Giant Leeches has a very familiar premise to fans of atomic age sci fi: typically benign creatures, in this case a pair of leeches, have been turned to giants by radiation- in this case from the nearby rocket station at Cape Canaveral. These leeches have also become intelligent as well, attacking the sad denizens of the swamp only when they have an advantage.

Our story opens with a poacher, Lem Sawyer (George Cisar) tooling his flat bottomed boat through the reeds of the swamp, checking his otter traps. He sees something odd near a weedy bank, something large and dark. He squints for a moment, then his eyes go large and white as the creature makes a hideous sort of howling sound. Without any further hesitation, Lem grabs his lever-action 44-40 off the boat seat and just keeps working the lever until the magazine is empty. The thing, apparently completely unharmed, slips away under the thick sludge of the swamp and vanishes. Lem, breathing hard and blinking, takes a quick guzzle from a pocket pint and poles his way quickly back to shore.

Once on solid ground, Lem hot-foots it to the local hangout: Dave Walker’s bait shop and dry goods store; and in the grand tradition of everyone that spots an alien or a monster in the movies, he can’t wait to blab hysterically to all his friends about it. True to form, his backwoods buddies assume he’s either gone crazy or was drunk (the latter being the favored assumption since every one of these peckerwoods seems to carry a jug around at all times). As the boys yuk it up, blaring jazz from a back room becomes so loud Lem shows a moment of irritation (how’s a man supposed to come off crazy as a shit-house-rat with all that racket going on?).

“Hold on a second, Lem,” says Dave Walker (Bruno VeSota). He turns toward a room off behind the store’s counter. “Liz!” He barks. This gets him nothing but an uncomfortable silence. He turns to the door manfully. “You hear me girl?”

We hear heels clacking casually over a wood floor, and Liz Walker (Yvette Vickers) makes her entrance. The tinkling piano of the unseen phonograph suddenly seems quieter as all the boys wipe their mouths and turn, stretching their necks like turtles, eyes growing round so as to absorb all of this vision they can. Liz is wearing a loosely adorned kimono bathrobe and plenty of leg and underwear, working a toothbrush in and out of her mouth. She leans back against the doorframe, looks at her husband coolly, and takes the brush out of her mouth. “What do you want now?” she asks him.

Dave shoots a nervous glance at his sweat-stained amigos, but manages a mannish swagger as he walks over to his wife. “You have to play that thing so loud?” he says at high volume, then leans in closer and says softly. “What you wanna come out dressed like that for?”

Again the toothbrush comes out. “Oh, don’t bother me,” says Liz, and turns on her heel and somehow manages, in only three strides, to give the boys another neck-stretching show as she moves back into the bedroom.

Bruno VeSota and Yvett Vickers

“Liz—“ says Dave, but she’s gone. He stands there a moment, looking at nothing, then gathers himself and looks at this pals. “Someday, I’m gonna give that she-cat the whopping she’s been asking for,” he says loudly.

The guys exchange glances, stifling grins. “Sure you are, Dave,” says Cal Maulton (Michael Emmet), who is obviously the bully boy, cock-of-the-walk. “Lay the law down to her. Show her who wears the pants around here.” A snuffled chuckle is heard, and Lem shakes his head and snorts openly.

“I’ll be right back,” said Dave, pretending he hasn’t heard as he walks into the back bedroom.

Once Dave is barely out of sight, Cal says, “Any whopping gets done back there, I’ll lay you a jug she’ll be doing it.” This gets moonshine-soaked guffaws all around, and then the boys get back to the business at hand; which is making a standing fool of Lem over this business of “octopus things.” Eventually, Lem - totally drunk now - staggers off to tend his otter lines and the party breaks up.

In the back bedroom, we find Liz and Dave having words while Liz dresses to go “out” (by herself, that is). She expertly torments Dave, who is a good 10 years older and 100 pounds fatter than his cheetah-sleek wife, putting lotion on her legs and putting clothes on in a heated reverse striptease. “Don’t touch me, “ she snaps, as he succumbs with a trembling, seeking hand. “I’m your husband,” he says, “I’ll touch you any time I want.” But there is a pleading wish in his voice as he follows her around the room, his stomach at the foremost. “Where you going?” He demands, but it’s all air. “I’m going out,” she says as though she had just been asked the most stupid question ever phrased. “Maybe I’ll be back, and maybe I won’t.” Slam (looks like ol’ Cal just won himself a jug!).

Meanwhile, out in the swamp, we find Game Warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark) and his girlfriend, Nan Greyson (Jan Shepard) searching for the very traps cracker poachers like Lem have littered throughout the soggy terrain. Girlfriend Jan is a Florida native (though, judging by her actually clean clothes and diction, clearly of a higher social strata than the previously seen customers at Dave’s General Store), and she warns him the locals aren’t going like having their trap lines confiscated. “You’re new here,” she tells her big, stalwart bo, “these people aren’t like other folks.” Steve, though, is obviously a terribly unimaginative, ramrod straight warranted officer of the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has dedicated his life to the preservation and protection of the land and it’s animals (yawn). He bushes away his girlfriend’s extremely valid concerns with a few “let ‘em try” comments then crushes his girl in an embrace. As Jan declares her love, we hear screams from somewhere off in the swamp; first a man’s – high and pitiful, then a woman’s (one of the many fine aspects of this movie is the sound effects throughout, particularly the screams. They actually sound filled with human terror and pain, that is, not theatrical at all, and very disconcerting). Steve grabs his revolver from the truck and he and Jan go dashing into the heavy brush.

They find Liz Walker screaming her head off while Lem, or what’s left of him, clings to a tree. Lem has horrible lesions, bloody tears and round pits, all over his face and body (his clothes have been nearly stripped off) and is in some fish-eyed catatonic state (a particularly effective shot here as Lem stares briefly directly at the camera/us – a shot that shouldn’t work as well as it does). While Liz screams and screams, Lem slumps to the ground, deader than yesterday’s halibut.

When Warden Benton dutifully makes his report to the local Sherriff, he gets his first taste of what his girl tried to warn him about. The local law, Sherriff Kovis (Gene Roth), has nothing but contempt for this interloping, snot-nosed warden from the State and doesn’t bother to interrupt his lunch. He sits hunched over his bowl of stew, barely taking his eyes of his seed catalog, while Benton demands an inquiry. Nope, says, Kovis around a mouth of possum gruel. Coroners’ Office called it death by misadventure, meaning a gator got him. Now, what say you go piss up a rope, young fella? But what about the sucker marks, pleads Benton to no avail. The Sherriff isn’t about to go sloshing around in the swamp for some gator that messed up a poaching, moonshiner like Lem Sawyer; and, not for nothing, the good Sherriff is not the sort of man who has a sympathetic ear for outlandish tales. After some heated words with the Warden, Kovis gets back to his bowl of stew and this season’s seed selection.

Benton heads back to his girlfriend’s house and discusses things with Doctor Greyson, Liz’s father. While the men weigh the matter, Liz serves up some coffee. It’s decided that maybe Lem wasn’t such a ‘shine soaked fool after all, maybe he really did see something unnatural out there. In typically humorless fashion, our game warden swears to uncover the truth, even if he has to search “every backwater, channel, and wet spot in the swamp. If it’s there, I’ll find it.” (again: yawn). Benton and his wildly loyal girlfriend spend the next few days in a flatboat, poking through the weeds, their faces shiny with sweat (the actors, particularly the game Ms. Shepard, appear genuinely exhausted and uncomfortable, which isn’t hard to imagine. A short, personal note: I live in Florida and have spent afternoons in the swamp, in a flat-bottomed boat. I did this when I was younger. Much younger. Suffice to say, I will not ever have that pleasure again unless I am knocked unconscious and awake to the experience. If you watch this movie and think the film makers have overdone the sweaty, filthy look of all the locals, think again. You look like that before you’ve poled 20 feet from the bank).

Back at Dave’s General Store, there’s trouble. Liz is tearing into her husband, while Dave stoically puts together an order for a customer. Her contempt is scorching, but Dave continues to tell her how much he loves her. This, of course, drives the curvy Liz into a nearly hissing frenzy. Actor Bruno VeSota is a tremendous frump, shuffling around the store, barely lifting either his voice or his eyes as he carries the carton of groceries out to his truck for delivery. He exits the store to the sound of merchandise clattering to the floor and his wife’s curses. Luckily, Dave’s best friend, Cal, is lounging around out front to comfort him. Trouble? Asks Cal helpfully. Ah, you know women, says Dave, nearly managing a scrap of dignity, they have to let their hair down sometimes. Yep, you sure know a lot about women, says Cal. Thanks, Cal, you’re a real pal - now I gotta make this delivery.

Cal, naturally, is Liz’s lover, a responsibility he attends to promptly the moment Dave’s truck pulls away from the store. Inside, we find Liz waiting, leaning against a doorframe. ‘You want something, Cal?” she says. “I sure do, honey,” answers Cal.

The two take a drive to a secluded patch of swamp and make love. Dave, though, has made short work of his delivery and surprises them with a double barreled shotgun. He walks the pair through the swamp and into the water, meaning only to scare them, but they are attacked and dragged beneath the warm, dark surface by the pair of giant leeches. In a great scene, the pair go down kicking and screaming while Dave, horrified, can only watch while stumbling backward in terror.

The Sherriff and his deputies show up and, after listening to Dave’s story, simply arrest and all but lynch the browbeaten Dave for the murder of his wife and lover right there on the bank. The Sherriff’s men search the swamp for bodies, but find nothing. OK, Dave, demands the Sherriff, after you killed them, where did you stash the bodies? “I loved my Liz,” says Dave, his eyes still glazed with horror. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her.”

“Sure, you loved her,” says Sherriff Kovis. “That’s why you chased her through the swamp with a shotgun.” Though lunkheaded, it’s hard to fault the Sherriff’s cynicism in this instance, although Bruno VeSota is so good as the pathetic Dave, we know his misplaced love for Liz was complete.

Michael Emmet

Things descend sharply after Dave’s arrest. For starters, Dave hangs himself in prison with his belt, unable to free himself of the visions in is head. Also, poachers and fishermen begin to vanish at a fair clip, along with local deer and livestock. Coincidentally, all other life in the swamp, including gators, have vanished. In one of the film’s best set pieces, we discover the fate of the missing: They have been dragged below to an underwater cave, a pocket of rank, fetid air that exists somewhere near the swamp bank. Here, the leeches devour the victims slowly, their terrible round appendages sucking flesh and blood from the faces and bodies; turning Liz, Cal, and all the other unfortunates into living food sacks - no longer possessing the strength to do anything but wail in anguish as divots and rings of flesh are taken bit by bit (in one tremendous sequence, it even seems that one of the giant suckers, attached to the side of a victim’s head, is sucking the brains right through the ear canal). We see them in the dripping darkness, their white, bloodless faces nearly glowing in the dank luminescence, their weak howls echoing against the cavern’s walls.

Above ground, Game Warden Benton, Doc Greyson, and Nan pursue a solution in their grim, plodding fashion. Displaying perhaps his backwoods Florida roots, Doc Greyson does come up with an idea pretty damn quick, and that is to toss enough dynamite into the swamp to turn the whole stinking shithole into a pit of steam. What this concept lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in brute force, and Nan likes it. Under the circumstances, a few swamp rats, catfish, and gators are a price all concerned seem willing to pay. Not square-head Steve, though, who is a great big hunk of dull blonde if there ever was one. Benton has sworn to preserve and protect the wildlife of the State of Florida, blah, blah. Even Nan, who has sat on a hard boat slat and sweated through many a blouse for her man, looses patience. Steve’s stance is particularly rigid considering that, by all available evidence, all life either in or near the swamp is already gone.

One afternoon Doc and daughter manage to slip a few sticks dynamite into the swamp, unbenounced to Benton (this despite Benton’s promise to arrest the Doctor if he uses explosives). Benton shows up just in time to watch a pair chalk-white bodies bob to the surface (the dynamite has dislodged them from the leech’s lair). A coroner quickly establishes that all the bodies, despite having been reported missing days ago, are all freshly dead and drained of blood. Steve forgets about the sanctity of rats and mosquitoes for a moment and theorizes that the leeches are keeping their groceries in underwater caverns. The Doc takes it a step further, figuring out that Liz Walker, the last person still missing, might still be alive – meat on the hoof, as it were.

Steve and an old war buddy get some scuba and decide to investigate. While below, Steve is attacked by a leech and shoots a spear home (the leeches, when not actively sucking brains, seem fairly inoffensive at this first extended viewing – sort of like large, immobile trash bags). Steve comes back to the surface to get a fresh spear. Need any help? asks his buddy. Naw, says Steve, oddly confident considering the preceding carnage. I got this. While Steve is below the dead body of Liz Walker floats to the surface, and Steve’s pal pulls her white, bloodless body from the water and flops it into the boat like a net of fish.

Meanwhile below, things are not going very well for Steve in round two. This time, the leeches (due to some clever editing) seem far more menacing, and Steve is battling for his life with spear and knife. He begins tugging frantically on the lifeline, which summons his buddy into the fray. The two just barley manage to flounder to shore with their lives. Steve, nearly suffering now from shock and covered in a blanket, has a complete change of heart regarding the use of dynamite. Screw the ducks and turtles. His only concern now is how fast can a charge be rigged up and is there enough explosives on hand to do the job good and proper. “It’ll blow the bottom out,” assures the war pal with a grin (I can’t find credits for the actor playing Steve’s war buddy, but he’s solid as a rock. His character seems to have missed the action of war and is having the time of his life).

“Let her rip,” says Game Warden Benton, still huffing for breath, no longer concerned one little bit about reports, promotions, or egrets.

The place erupts in a ball of swamp gas, the leeches float to the surface, and Steve and Nan exchange an obligatory embrace while war buddy grins. The End.

And so, to the Good Stuff:

Good Stuff, Pt. I: A Cast of Characters.

Steve Benton, erstwhile Game Warden, and his dutiful sweetheart, Nan, are the heroic duo of this tale. They are also two of the dullest folks that every strode the globe and the film falls flat whenever they give yet another expository speech while paddling around or drinking coffee. This is a film that loves the little people, and Kowalski’s direction seems to spring to life whenever he has these filthy, sweaty corrupt character together in a scene. The torrid tale of Dave and Liz Walker, and Liz’s brutish swamp boy, Cal, seems to come straight from a 1950s pulp novel by Jim Thompson. “Honey,” says Cal, “You could tell me you killed your ma and your pa, and your whole family, and I’d still fight to protect you.”

All three characters hold our attention, are well written and particularly well acted. Yvette Vickers, a screen immortal for her work in Attack of the 50 foot Woman, is the sex-soaked vamp here again, and she takes the part and runs with it straight across the finish line. Vickers wasn’t capable of giving a bad performance, and her commitment to any part she was given was complete. “You call yourself a man!” she howls at Cal, who blames her the moment Dave points a shotgun at his belly, “You and your muscles!” Vickers spits in his face like a frenzied cat. He smacks her in response, calls her a tramp. She gathers herself and spits on him again, putting her whole body behind it this time. In this scene, and others, her anger and pent up sexual power is nearly a tangible force, instantly turning her into the most interesting thing on the screen. Her voice flings insults and contempt like splashes of acid, and one wonders if her spit wouldn’t cause blisters. Yet when she tells her tale of bad husbands and bad luck to Cal, it rings true and touching. Great actress.

In love with this leggy harpy is Dave, and actor Bruno VeSota gives us nothing short of an acting tour de force. As the husband and store owner, he is all pathetic subservience and desperate need under a thin veneer of swamp-cracker bluster. He has managed a showcase wife several levels above his station in appearance (Liz tells Cal that Dave is the first man that ever talked nice to her), and he is forever under the thumb because of it.

Bruno VeSota

But when VeSota, carrying a shotgun as though born with it in his hands, comes upon the unfaithful two stretched out on their private patch of grass, it is immediately clear the balance of control has shifted. “Get up,” he says darkly, shotgun pointed down at the pair. Cal tries a brief stab at bravado, but Dave shatters that like a windowpane with a shotgun blast that blows a hole in the swamp at Cal’s feet. Cal actually buckles at the knees in fright, and VeSota sends the pair running through the swamp, stumbling and falling, while he stalks them in measured, unhurried strides. While hunting, he calmly refills his side-by-side with double-ought buck, blasting the air now and then to keep the pair nimble. “Run!” he roars after them, his mouth a hate-torn slash in a full face close-up. “Run 'til you drop!”

Finally Dave is through torturing the haggard pair and corners them at the swamp’s edge. By this time there is something positively demonic about VeSota, his eyes deep and black in his face, his mustache suddenly inky and satanic. Bully boy Cal is crushed into a yammering tear-stained wreck, simply begging in a hysterical whine for his life. “Get going,” says Dave, ordering them into the water, “or I’ll kill you where you stand,” The pair believe him 100%. They back up slowly, yelping all the way, until they are about hip deep in the slime and stink, and only then does Dave relent. He elicits a promise from Cal to leave the county in exchange for his life. As the two begin to make their way to shore, we see Dave’s face suddenly go blank in fear. “Oh, my God,” he mummers, gesturing numbly. “Behind you . . .look out.”

Later, when being question by the heavy-jawed Sherriff (played perfectly by long time B-movie veteran, Gene Roth), VeSota has been reduced to a fat, scared baby with round eyes, words bubbling from him as he stands with his small, fleshy hands handcuffed before him. He is completely ruined in both mind and body and it is perfectly believable when we discover, as does the turnkey, his massive body hanging from a overhead pipe in the jail cell.

The Good Stuff, Pt. II: The Nightmare Fever of the Swamp!

If you have ever walked through a Florida swamp and had the sudden realization that your feet have sunk a bit into the black muck, and been made aware in a flash that all around you is more black muck with no high ground, you will have touched upon the nightmare potential that dwells in the cypress and Spanish Moss. Humans like us were never meant for the swamp. It is the place for things that never need firm ground, that can wallow like snakes and alligators in prehistoric sludge and rot, can slither or slide through it; that can actually eat and digest filth like snapping turtles and catfish; or suck blood from other living things - like mosquitoes, green bottle flies, and leeches. Humans simply drip sweat here, get terrible headaches, and try not to get eaten while they slap continually at the biting parasites. Every living tree or bush, every growth, seems to hang with a kind of grey-green heaviness as it is absorbed forever down into the corruption of the earth.

The film makers of Giant Leeches capture this surreal reality admirably, particularly in the scenes of the leeches dining on their human stash in the underwater caverns. This is the swamp hyper-realized: a place without firmness or escape, stinking of dead flesh and vegetation – where the human soul is nothing – the transient human vessel simply a piece of matter, falling eventually into the mire. Faces loom white and shapeless from the darkness, mouths only black holes full of moans. No salvation. No reward – just meat and substance in a cycle of ever darkening evolution.

Please watch this film and notice how the white shapes float through the black water. -- Radiation Cinema!


  1. I'm rewatching this tonight!
    This is one of my absolute favourites, with an incredibly sleazy atmosphere of boiling erotic frustration...
    That grindhouse feel to it is much stronger than usual for Corman-era monster stuff.
    Is Yvette Vickers still alive? How vindicated she would feel to hear herself described as an actress who "wasn’t capable of giving a bad performance". Very true.
    Do I smell autobiography in that "If you have ever walked through a Florida swamp" bit? Have you walked through a Florida swamp? Surely not AFTER watching this film??? Are you mad or something?
    Have you tracked down Night of the Blood Beast yet? More grimy Kowalskinsanity. ("No one was safe as long as this head hunting thing roamed the land!" So not just a head hunting thing roaming the land, but one so undiscriminating that NOBODY IS SAFE - the worst kind of head-hunting thing imaginable!)

  2. I saw this movie years ago on late night tv, and I still remember quite a bit of it.
    After reading your analysis of this movie I think I want to take another look, there is so much more to it than I remember.
    Good work as always, I love reading your take on these great old movies.

  3. Wow...need to see this. It's one of those that I always see for super-cheap, but am afraid the transfer quality will be too hard to watch. But I'm always looking for B-movies shot in Florida, as that's where I'm from...I love the dark, swampy atmosphere the location affords.

  4. Thanks, everyone!

    Matthew: Vickers still lives! I don't know where she is living now, but she must be in her early seventies or so. She was really something! I have a crush, I have to admit. I listened to the commentary track recently for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (with Tom Neal) and completely fell for her. She sounded so smart and together. And yes, I have not only walked through a swamp (and felt the out worldly moment of the world slipping away, but also poled a faltboat around. As I say, homo sapiens were not meant for this world). I have seen Blood Beast, and while it is not as good as Leeches, it still had that gritty Kowalski feel. The shot where the doctor is hung up like a slaughtered pig is worth a review in and of itself!

    SQ: Thanks! Please do have a look at this film again! If you do seek it out, make sure you get the version from Marengo Films (available on Amazon). It has the best transfer quality). Thanks for stopping by! I'll be popping over to your blog soon. I notice you have some new posts.

    Billy: You are from Florida! Then you absolutely must get this film. Make sure you get the version I recommend to SQ above. It's the best one available, plus it has Corman’s Bucket of Blood as a double feature! The quality still is a bit murky, but not terrible and very watchable. Being from Florida, you will know what I am talking about when I mention the nightmare qualities that are inherent in the swamp. Have you ever been around the swamp at night? And seen a pair (or numerous pairs) of green, luminous eyes pointing at you from the gloaming? Lord. – Mykal

  5. Sorry; what with all that giant leech-Yvette-blood beast talk, I forgot to say: great post, as usual!

  6. Thanks, Matthew: Your enthusiasm is always greatly appreciated! -- Mykal

  7. Ive never been so scared of giant trash bags in my life =D Definitely a sign of the times, but it just isnt my cup o' tea. Glad I can say Ive seen it though, and another excellent and insightful review Mykal!

  8. Carl: - It cannot be denied - the leech outfits were definitely not the strong point of this picture! Guy Buccola and Ross Sturlin (the two stunt men/actors that played the pair of leeches) look dangerously close to drowning in the underwater shots.

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for dropping by, Carl. - Mykal

  9. Wow! I love your website. Thanks for introducing me to it! Bad movies are my one of my greatest pleasures.


  10. KW: The pleasure is all mine. Love our blog and your recent post on Chinese signs in English translation (for those curious, please pay KW's blog a visit via his profile). Thanks for climbing on board! Anyone from the great state of Indiana is a friend of mine! -- Mykal

  11. yo thanks for the nice comment! it is always nice to get comments like that and then come to the persons blog only to find it is a hidden TREASURE! wow, i am blown away by this site, and can't wait to hunker down and watch some of these clips and look at the retro stuff!

    i added that follow widget too...

  12. Brad: Back at you. I have followed your blog and really like your cartooning style. Please come back again soon! -- Mykal

  13. I remember seeing this a long long time ago and thinking it was awesome. I'll have to throw it in my queue.

  14. Eric: Thanks for joining in, Eric. It is indeed awesome. Yvette Vickers, whom I talk about, did so few films, unfortunately, but this one's a real showcase for her. - Mykal

  15. Great writeup. Wow. You've really got me wanting to see this one. I had heard of it, but never had the chance to see it. You post such interesting blog posts up here. Great blog as always. Cheers!

  16. Keith: Thanks as always for the kind words. I haven't been over to Dino's for a bit. Soon. -- Mykal

  17. RC!: I've had this film for a while now and am asshamed to admit I haven't got around to watching it yet. Disgusting, I know - and to think I call myself a Roger Corman fan. After reading your review however, I plan to watch it very soon! Such a great review - so indepth. Particularly loved your description of the leeches' underwater lair... *shivers*

    Best wishes from Behind the Couch.

  18. James: Thanks for the kind words. You have a nice blog yourself over there on the Emerald Isle. I’ll be visiting again soon. I am a Corman Fan myself. Please check out my review of The Day the World Ended for my brief discussion of my favorite Corman film as well as my thoughts on the great director. -- Mykal