A Blu-ray release of an obscure 1970s horror dud is bound to find its modern audience – particularly amongst those, of which there are now many, with a genuine tolerance for bizarre cinema. Mark Fraser ponders a work that presses a few interesting buttons, but for the wrong reasons.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Whichever way one looks at it, there’s no escaping the fact Joseph G Prieto’s 1973 horror opus Miss Leslie’s Dolls is one hell of a strange movie.
A ludicrous story, badly acted, ridiculous dialogue, crummy sets, basic mise-en-scene, a bizarre electronic soundtrack, some dubbing issues and a small touch of softcore porn to boot – this film has all the cheap trademarks of a purely Z-grade grindhouse venture.
Having said that, Miss Leslie’s Dolls also seems to be such a rarity that it may actually be worth checking out, especially by those who enjoy ploughing their way through cult cinema.
At face value the plot, which doesn’t so much meander as simply stumbles along, is fairly straightforward – at least during its first third. On a stormy night three college students from Boston – Martha (Kitty Lewis), Lily (Marchelle Bichette) and Roy (Charles Pitts), as well as their uptight teacher Miss Frost (Terri Juston) – are taken in by the strange Miss Leslie (Salvatore Ugarte) at her isolated country house after their car runs out of petrol in a nearby cemetery.
Despite the fact “she” appears quite loopy (and is obviously a man), the four visitors don’t seem to be too put off by their host’s strange and ominous-sounding comments. “The door. No one comes through that door – no living creature!” she tells them, before later adding: “The cat gets restless in the presence of strangers.”
The alarm bells also don’t seem to ring when Miss Leslie finds out one of her guests is called Martha.
“Martha? No it’s not possible,” she says. “The name, the startling resemblance, as if again I was in the presence of the same girl.” Then: “It’s her – alive again. Reincarnated. It has to be true. Oh, how I recognise you now.”
After this outbreak, which at best only raises some eyebrows amongst the intruders, an explanation is provided by Miss Leslie. Apparently, a few years before, the other Martha was employed by her mother at the family toy factory (also in Boston), but was “consumed by fire” when it burnt down.
“She was the only one that knew and understood the painful sorrows of my innermost secrets,” she pitifully laments.
“We loved each other. Had she survived the horrible occurrences of that awful night, my life would have been a happy one.”
Again the warning sirens don’t go off for the visitors, who then accept an invitation to go to the kitchen to get something to eat, wherein their host reveals her belief in reincarnation.
“I am a profound student of the supernatural,” she declares. Of course most normal folk with half a brain would have been edging towards the front door by now. But not this lot, which earlier failed to see Miss Leslie steal the corpse of a young woman from an open coffin in the graveyard just as their vehicle was running out of fuel a few metres away.
It’s around this point that Roy, while looking for some bourbon, comes across their host’s “sanctuary” – a room containing six life size dolls; female mannequins which wouldn’t look out of place in a Persian bordello from a 1960s Hammer horror film. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Lily says upon arriving at the scene, possibly describing the reaction of just about everyone who will ever watch this movie.
Yet despite the dolls’ creepiness, no one seems alarmed; nor do they wonder (except for a curious Miss Frost) what is lying on the sheet-covered slab near the doorway – something that suspiciously looks like it could be a body.
Shortly thereafter, when Miss Leslie comes across this intrusion, she helpfully explains: “My dolls aren’t made of wax.” While the implications of this remark are fairly obviously, it also passes unquestioned.
The fun continues. Having consumed some spiked coffee, the hitherto uptight (but drool-worthy) Miss Frost – whom Lily has earlier called a “dry prune” – dons a sexy light blue negligee (during which time it is revealed she is not wearing a bra under her tight orange top) and seduces the girl while Roy and Martha do their own thing in a bedroom across the hall.
As strange as this may seem, it’s quite an important plot development. Aside from the fact the seemingly level headed Miss Frost is the one who initially insists the group takes refuge in the house (against Roy’s wishes) – and thus leads them all to their individual dooms – she eventually ends up being Miss Leslie’s conduit to becoming a full blown woman during what is the movie’s true supernatural moment.
In other words, by the end of the story, it’s the prudish one, with her “crazy ideas about morality”, who is the most gullible, and is therefore appropriately punished for not only indirectly sending Martha and Lily to their deaths, but helping fulfil the homosexual desires of the deranged (and metamorphosed) transsexual Miss Leslie as she wantonly jumps on the imprisoned Roy for a bit of slap and tickle.
Such a spoiler summary, though, ignores a few smaller aspects of the film that are worth mentioning. At first blush it is easy to make an obvious comparison between this movie and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), wherein the titular character is seriously haunted by the memory of his dead mother. If anything, Prieto* and his co-writer Ralph Remy Jnr (who also produced this nonsense and is credited as its stills photographer) seem to actively exploit this angle by having Miss Leslie keep her mum’s skull (to which she talks to) in the basement.
Another interesting scene occurs when Miss Frost dreams she is being tormented by the dolls, which dance around her as she lies chained to the aforementioned slab. For a moment it looks like she is going to endure the same fate as Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) at the end of William Lustig’s 1980 slasher opus Maniac and be ripped to pieces. Fortunately, for those who don’t like gore at least, this doesn’t happen (although it’s arguable her ultimate fate is perhaps far worse).
Then there’s the fact the movie’s opening moment – a forward flash in which Miss Frost is running out of the house in her skimpy nightie and yelling “Oh my God – help me” – is almost reminiscent (and admittedly this comparison is a bit of a stretch) of the beginning of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), when the governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who may or may not be delusional, has her hands clasped in prayer as she quietly soliloquises about her efforts to protect two children, for whom she is being employed to look after, from malevolent supernatural forces.
So yes – Miss Leslie’s Dolls is pretty out there in a bizarre way. And, judging from the various articles written about it on digital media, it has received quite limited exposure since its initial release some 45 years ago.
Nevertheless it’s undeniable the film actually achieves, albeit in a completely bogus fashion, what it sets out to do. Regardless of its overall strangeness and cheapness, by the time it reaches the finish line it has become a bona fide horror movie.
According to some of the literature found on the web, this really may have been Joseph P Mawra, a New York-born exploitation filmmaker who – between 1964 and 1965 – made the four part Olga series. While this reviewer has never seen any of these works (and hadn’t heard of them before sitting through Miss Leslie’s Dolls), it’s easy to imagine what they might be like with titles like Olga’s House of Shame and White Slaves of Chinatown (both 1964). Apparently they made quite an impression on the young John Waters.
Miss Leslie’s Dolls was released by Network on Blu-ray on September 2. The limited edition features a collectable booklet written by Laura Mayne.
Words by Mark Fraser
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