Directed by: Joseph G. Prieto
Stars: Salvador Ugarte, Terri Juston, Marcelle Bichette
Description: A gay drag queen with a mother fixation terrorizes a city, hunting down, killing and dismembering women.
Miss Leslie is not like other women. She lives in an isolated house on the edge of a cemetery. She has a basement full of life-sized ‘dolls’. She sports a five-o’clock shadow and her voice isn’t quite in sync with her lip movements…
All these should be clues enough for the three students – two nubile girls plus a solitary jock who, understandably, can’t believe his luck – and their teacher, the titian-tressed fox, Miss Frost (who fills out a baby doll nightie very nicely, thank you), when their car breaks down on Miss Leslie’s decrepit doorstep. But obviously this quartet of clichés have never seen an episode of Scooby Doo and accept ‘her’ offer of sanctuary from the gathering storm.
Okay, let’s pause for a moment. In the interests of transparency (and no, that’s not a reference to Miss Frost’s nylon negligee), I must confess to having a degree of personal responsibility – guilt even! – in the re-appearance of this micro-budget obscurity. It all came about when I read a comment from Teptime on IMDb asking if, regrettably, it had to be considered a ‘lost’ film. Not so, I assured him – indeed, I regularly tripped over a print when I tried to negotiate the clutter in my hallway!
Essentially it’s an old dark house thriller but there are frequent echoes of other films. Psycho is an obvious reference point. Then there’s the opening scene, with one of the characters desperately fleeing the house – a flash-forward which won’t make sense until the final reel – suggesting somebody had seen Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. And what about that cellar with its life-sized tableau, which is oddly reminiscent of Behind Locked Doors?
Like a trash culture collage, all these little – ahem – ‘homages’ add to its demented charm. Which is just as well because, truth be told, 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!
Ugarte, it seems, was a mainstay of expatriate Cuban theatre in Florida, where the film was shot (in a ‘studio’ in the middle of a cattle farm, according to one of the cast). And his performance is a masterclass in off-beam absorption – all helped by the fact that he’s dubbed with a female voice which almost but doesn’t quite match his lip movements. You really won’t be able to take your eyes off ‘Miss’ Leslie as she relates the ‘accidental’ toy shop fire that killed her mother back in Boston (but you’re getting ahead of me here, aren’t you?).
Of course it’s no time at all before the secret of the cellar is uncovered – though our incredibly slow-witted but hyperactively hormonal quartet seem more keen on bed swapping than wondering about where their host/ess obtained her incredibly lifelike ‘dolls’ – or why she brings an axe to the kitchen table. But even then it boasts one last twist, which – despite the fact that I’m a seasoned fan of bizarro cinema – had me lifting my jaw from the floor.
No, I’m not going to spoil the surprise. Let’s just say that, while Glen Or Glenda viewed transvestism from a psychological perspective and Let Me Die A Woman tackled the surgical side of trans-gender issues, Miss Leslie’s Dolls is probably the first film to approach the metaphysical niceties of feeling trapped in the wrong body!
Despite the kind help of Charles Pitts – who went on to far finer things as the hero of Russ Meyer‘s Supervixens and is now pursuing a successful career as a singer – shedding some light on the mystery of Miss Leslie, there are still plenty of questions to be answered.
It looks to have been shot a few years before what seems to have been an extremely limited theatrical release. But who exactly was Joseph Prieto? Sleazoid Express editor, the late Bill Landis, suggested it was Joseph Mawra, who directed the Madame Olga films, but comparing Mawra and Prieto’s IMDb entries makes me wonder whether this was the case.
Maybe it doesn’t matter though, because the film belongs to Ugarte and his magnificently warped performance. The conviction that he brings to the part is staggering! Sadly, I’m pretty sure that the print I have was slightly cut as there’s a noticeable soundtrack jump at one point, suggesting a trim on account of violence.
But all fans of cinematic madness should rejoice that it has survived, even in this apparently slightly truncated form.