The concept of gender fluidity seems to have slipped, surprisingly easily (give or take the odd outbreak of tabloid hand-ringing and knicker-wetting) into general acceptance over the last few years. ‘Twas not always thus. Not so very long ago, the phenomenon’s existence was only acknowledged in the realm of horror and thriller films, where it was invariably treated without too much sympathy, generally going hand-in-skin-glove-with psychosis and murder. Of course the true-life trans-necrophile antics of Ed Gein didn’t exactly help and the spirit of “The Plainfield Ghoul” hangs over such biggies as Psycho (not to mention its countless imitators), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of The Lambs.
Miss Leslie’s Dolls (1973) is nowhere near as well-polished a piece of Cinema as any of those (Tobe Hooper’s film, an almost exact contemporary, underlines just how far off the contemporary pace it was) nor anything like as compelling as, e.g. David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979), a film with which it bears many affinities (ditto any amount of “Wax Museum” variants). What it is, is a ripe slice of indie American gothic which moves at a funereal pace for much of its length but contains enough incidental oddities to maintain your interest to the bitter, baffling end. Anyone who’s sat through all 72 “video nasties” will have suffered far worse… Unhinged, I’m looking at you!
“Handled most capably”? Hm. In fact I’ve got several bones to pick with the compiler of this appraisal. The principal unmentioned elephant in the room is Miss Leslie’s plastinated tableau of dead young women (“My precious dolls!”) Other key elements which it glosses over (possibly on the grounds that they wouldn’t be well received in big cities and small towns) include Miss L’s rambling monologues about the transmigration of souls (something [s]he appears to have achieved by the end of the picture) and his/her arguments with his/her dead mother (rendered by a skull, the budget obviously not stretching to a Mrs Bates maquette).
That’s a weird bunch of shit to deal with right there and one of the girls’ observations that Miss Leslie’s house also “smells of death” reminded me of another grindhouse classic but none of this stops the college crowd from fornicating like bunnies as soon as Miss Leslie (having spiked their drinks) turns out the lights…
If pressed, I’d have to summarise MLD as a sexed-up Scooby-Doo episode (the one after the hungry hippy and that scabby dog were, at long last, taken out and shot), written by Thomas Harris (then re-written by a cretin) and directed by… well, directed by Joseph G. Prieto. This bare bones release doesn’t include any information on the elusive Mr Prieto. Certain scuzz film scholars have identified him with the Jospeh Mawra who directed Savages From Hell, Shanty Tramp and Fireball Jungle, but the usual sources (notably IMDB) are all over the place on this one…
Miss Leslie’s Dolls might not have been Prieto’s first directorial credit, but it does seem to have been his last. Miss Leslie, similarly, turned out to be Salvador Ugarte’s only film role, which is a great pity. Lumbering around looking like Alice Cooper after a particularly epic night on the Brandy Alexanders, ineptly dubbed with a female voice… the kids’ surprise at the climactic unveiling of Miss L as a Mister defies credibility. Was it supposed to come as a shock to us, too?
Once again Network have raided the BFI’s archives to good effect (considering its age and lowly status in the cinematic scheme of things, the film looks surprisingly good in this transfer) and you should try to catch Miss Leslie’s Dolls, before it becomes the next Rocky Horror. Spiked bourbon might well enhance your enjoyment of it considerably.