‘Who hasn’t played with real dolls at some time or other?’
Miss Leslie’s Dolls is a 1973 American horror feature film directed by Joseph P. Mawra [as Joseph G. Prieto] from a screenplay co-written with Ralph Remy Jr. The movie stars Salvador Ugarte, Terri Juston and Marcelle Bichette.
Alma Frost, a beautiful university teacher and three of her students, Martha, Lily and Roy, are stranded in a backwoods area in the midst of a big thunderstorm. Forced to abandon their automobile in a cemetery they seek refuge in an old lonely house in the woods, where they meet with Miss Leslie, a kind, affable and middle-aged woman who lives in the house.
They’ll soon find out that Miss Leslie is a dangerous maniac obsessed with the thought of liberating her spirit from her ageing body, so that she – the spirit – may take possession of the healthy and wholesome body of a young girl, to make it her own and enjoy with it the pleasures of life and love.
With this mania in mind, Miss Leslie has caused the death of several girls whom she has embalmed, keeping them in a sort of chapel-like chamber and calling them her “dolls”…
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A long-lost and unquestionably obscure early 1970s exploitation movie. Director Joseph G. Prieto is none other than Joseph P. Mawra, the warped genius behind the infamous Olga movies of the 1960s, noted as some of the roughest roughies of the era. But this is a horror film, albeit it a rather squalid one and the unclothed scenes are no more extensive than in many other low-budget genre pieces of the era.
This is the sort of bizarro horror film that could have only been made in the 1970s and it manages to look shockingly cheap and visually arresting simultaneously, having that odd, undefinable something that you can only find in movies from the outer fringes of Seventies borderline horror.
Perhaps the oddest thing, in retrospect, is that the film not only had a British theatrical release in 1973 but also passed the censors uncut – because there is such an overwhelming sense of sordid grubbiness running through the film that it’s hard to imagine the BBFC not kicking it into touch. As it was, we can only imagine the reactions of audiences who caught this at their local fleapit cinema.
Interestingly, the film lifts from and predicts a number of other movies. The obvious influence is Psycho, with the transvestite killer, while other aspects of the story seem to pick at any number of old dark house movies. Yet the films it most resembles are those that appeared around the same time and which Mawra would most likely have been barely aware of or which hadn’t even been made when this was released – Three on a Meathook (which has its own“little broken dolls”), The Sinful Dwarf and Thundercrack! (1975).
The plot is simple: three students – Martha (Kitty Lewis), Lily Marcela Bichette) and Roy (Charles Pitts) – and their repressed teacher Miss Frost (Terri Juston, giving a vigorous performance of barely contained desire) are stranded when the car they are travelling in breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The travellers end up taking shelter with the reclusive Miss Leslie (Salvador Ugarte), who all but the most misguided viewer will immediately peg as being a man in drag, albeit with a female voice dubbed in to ‘fool’ the viewer.
Miss Leslie is a bit of an eccentric, telling maudlin tales of a ‘friend’ who was lost in a fire, and who she believes Martha to be the reincarnation of. She also discusses her experiments in the occult and keeps a shrine made up of wax mannequins that are quite blatantly real women, the corpses of her previous victims. Because, yes, Miss Leslie is a psychotic killer who starts to off her new guests in some strange attempt at soul transference, where she hopes to use her occult powers to switch bodies with one of the nubile young women and then have her wicked way with Roy, whose has chained in the cellar.
The options for body-swapping are rapidly reduced by Miss Leslie’s penchant for axe murder. Meanwhile, Miss Frost has had her repressed desires awakened, and after attempting to bed both her female students, is named as the designated victim, which involves quite the most unconvincing chase through the woods ever filmed.
Miss Leslie’s Dolls isn’t quite the sleazy classic that it is being made out to be in some reviews (though that particular word is so degraded these days, maybe it is), however, it’s definitely a prime example of Seventies cinematic weirdness. This was a time when the genre was home to a plethora of indie, low-budget filmmakers across America, cranking out movies that only vaguely resemble ‘real’ cinema and were all the better for that. These were not simply ‘bad’ films – anyone can make a bad film.
This is like so many of its contemporaries (the work of Andy Milligan, films such as Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, Corpse Eaters and the aforementioned Three on a Meathook) where the established rules of filmmaking – standard ideas of pacing, structure, editing, visual composition and so on – are thrown so far out of the window that the film starts to feel more like experimental, avant-garde cinema that anything actually commercial.
How such movie-making techniques are deliberate is always a possible bone of contention, yet Mawra had been around long enough to have at least picked up the basics of filmmaking. That he came up with something as decidedly odd as this suggests a degree of intent and his unsavoury approach gives the film that indefinable element that makes it rather extraordinary viewing.
As with many of the other films mentioned, Miss Leslie’s Dolls has a funereal pace and a stilted, almost theatrical look where very little seems to happen for ages with poor actors sitting around giving gratingly shrieking performances that are so wooden that they become hyper-theatrical.
The plot makes no sense, plot threads are introduced and then forgotten about, huge gaps remain in the narrative and absolutely nothing makes sense. And yet that’s why Miss Leslie’s Dolls is so bizarrely impressive. People often describe horror films as ‘nightmarish’, however, this really does feel like some sort of unsettling dream, where reality is just that little bit out of reach and nothing is quite right. To be fair, Miss Leslie could have actually been a real female character played by a man, and it would seem no less strange.
This is cinema so inherently strange that it transcends all the limitations of the production values, and becomes more than the sum of its parts. Films such as this are genuinely experimental, if only because they are all too often made by people who clearly don’t know what they are doing and so are forced to experiment. This is outsider filmmaking masquerading as commercial cinema, and all the more interesting and deliciously subversive for that. Viewers bored with the cookie-cutter world of modern horror cinema may find this a welcome breath of fetid air.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA (with additions by Adrian J Smith)
” …there’s really very little that’s original in this mess-terpiece. They’d been making this sort of story since the thirties at least. And, for the first couple of reels, it’s as leadenly staged as anything from Monogram at their most threadbare. But stick with it because it has one overwhelmingly redeeming quality – Salvador Ugarte!” Film4Q
“There is corny dialogue to laugh at, an unbelievable acceptance of the goings on by the youngsters but a sinister tone is established and when the dolls appear we know we are watching something, just that little bit different. Great fun and after that slow start very enjoyable.” Christopher Underwood
“Is this a good movie? No. Is it “so bad it’s good” a la Manos or Troll 2? Sadly, also no. The acting is decent enough, as is the soundtrack, and it’s competently shot and put together; but very little actually happens for the bulk of its running time, the ending is unsatisfying and the attempts at shocking the audience simply fall flat these days…” Set the Tape
Cast and characters:
Salvador Ugarte … Miss Leslie
Terri Juston … Miss Alma Frost
Marcelle Bichette … Lily
Kitty Lewis … Martha
Charles Pitts … Roy Sanders
Having been presumed lost, a print of Miss Leslie’s Dolls was discovered and shown at the British Film Institute in London on September 30, 2009.
In the UK, Network released Miss Leslie’s Dolls on Blu-ray and DVD on September 3, 2018.