Personifying 1970s indie-horror weirdness, Joseph P. Mawra’s incredibly strange and very un-PC film is a study in the alternative, almost arthouse underground genre filmmaking of that extraordinary decade.
A long-lost and unquestionably obscure early 1970s exploitation movie, Miss Leslie’s Dolls has been hyped, rather misleadingly, as a sex film. Perhaps it’s because 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 – or perhaps it is because people read the sordid synopsis, see the amount of nudity and put two and two together. But in truth, this is a horror film, albeit it a rather squalid one, and the nudity is no more extensive than in many other low-budget genre pieces of the era. Perhaps, though, rather than pinning the film into the sex or horror camp, we should simply accept it as being sleaze.
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 although not especially excessive in terms of nudity or gore, 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, I can only imagine the reactions of audiences who caught this at their local fleapit.
Interestingly, the film lifts from and predicts a number of other movies. The obvious influence is Psycho, with the transvestite killer (his/her presence in the film enough to make the BBFC currently warn of ‘outdated’ attitudes for modern viewers), while other aspects of the story seem to pick at films like Blood Feast and any number of old dark house movies. But the films it most resembles are those that appeared around the same time and which Prieto 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, Thundercrack, as well as the earlier Orgy of the Dead and other off-the-wall examples of cinematic grime all come to mind at various points while viewing this.
The plot is simple: three students – Martha (Kitty Lewis), Lily Marcela Bichette) and Roy (Charles Pitts) – and their sexually repressed teacher Miss Frost (Terri Juston, giving a vigorous performance of barely contained sexual desire) have a car breakdown in the middle of nowhere and end up taking shelter with the reclusive Miss Leslie (Salvador Ugarte), who all but the most forgiving 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 even though he has all the charm and appeal of a rotting slut. The options for body-swapping are rapidly reduced by Miss Leslie’s penchant for axe murder, but Miss Frost has had her repressed lesbian 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 classic that it is being made out to be (though that particular word is so degraded these days, maybe it is), but 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 resembled ‘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 like Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The 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 deliberate this is will always to a bone of contention, but 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, and bad actors sit 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 that’s why this is so impressive. People describe horror films as ‘nightmarish’ all the time, but 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 honest, 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 like 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 will find this a welcome breath of fetid air.
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