Miss Leslie’s Dolls is an odd movie. A formerly lost grindhouse/sexploitation film from 1973 (complete with old school BBFC X-Rating title card), Network offers us a beautifully restored HD version of a strange little title.
It starts off promising with a negligée-clad woman running out of a house and screaming “oh God, help us,” before the story gets properly under way. Three college students and their teacher are travelling through the world’s first and only cardboard graveyard (complete with hand written gravestones) when their car runs out of petrol.
Trudging through the rain they find the home of the titular Miss Leslie (Salvador Ugarte), a solidly built man in a dress, dubbed with the voice of a woman who has a curious obsession with disturbingly lifelike dolls and black magic. It’s never made clear if the characters are supposed to think this is actually a woman or if they realise it’s a man? They certainly treat Miss Leslie as exactly what she claims to be.
The first 50 minutes or so mostly consist of Miss Leslie waxing lyrical about reincarnation and dolls while the students and teacher get drunk and sleep with each other. We also learn that the apparently straight-laced teacher, Miss Alma Frost (Terri Juston), has a thing for one of her female students. Whilst we can imagine the sudden inclusion of a lesbian sex scene was, for the time, something shocking and titillating, now it merely elicits a moment of surprise.
There are themes of possession and reincarnation running throughout and these culminate in the last 20 minutes or so, although there is very little on-screen violence and only one blatant moment of gore, despite the hyperbolic claims on the Blu-Ray box. The ending includes an attempt at a triple-twist regarding Miss Leslie, the fate of the teacher, and one other (that we won’t go into here for fear of spoiling the moment).
Miss Leslie’s Dolls wears its inspiration on its sleeve, with clear nods being given to Hitchcock’s seminal Pyscho, right down to the character talking to their long-dead mother, through the reasoning for Norman Bates dressing as he does is quite different. There is one stand out scene in particular involving the dolls and the Teacher that, while it lingers on perhaps a little longer than it needs to, is still creepily effective.
Praise must also be given to Salvador Ugarte for managing to convey something unnerving in his portrayal of Miss Leslie, making her both sad and disturbing in equal measure. The overdubbing of the woman’s voice is distracting at first, but you will likely notice it less and less as the film goes on.
Miss Leslie’s Dolls is a curiosity of its time. These days, its attempts at horror and shock come across as almost quaint, though one can imagine that back in the day the themes of magic, sex, transvestism and violence likely had the censors reaching for the “X” stamp with quivering hands and fogged up glasses.
Network’s worldwide release of the Blu-Ray debut comes with little in the way of features, as so little information exists about the production. Even the name of the director is in doubt, with some believing that Joseph G Pietro is actually Joseph P Mawra, but there is no way to definitively prove it. All we have is a small photo gallery of original posters and some stills, as well as a booklet of liner notes collecting what little we do know for sure about the history of this film.
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 when stacked against what we now see on the screens. But it is a curious little film that has been given a second chance at finding an audience.
Network presents the worldwide Blu-ray and DVD debut of Miss Leslie’s Dolls on 3rd September, and Digital on 1st October.