‘I don’t know about you, but I’m not spending one more minute in this cemetery.’
This obscure, fringe effort from the early 1970s is a picture few saw it on its original release – it appeared in UK cinemas in 1973 as a support feature to The Erotic Adventures of Zorro – and which they probably thought they only dreamed. It has some of the fractured aesthetics of H.G. Lewis (Blood Feast), Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones) or Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders) … which may be more down to not realising that arc lights have more than one setting than any deliberate choice. But it also has some of the camp, shrill, put-on feel of more marginalised pictures, like George Kuchar’s The Devil’s Cleavage, Paul Bartel’s Private Parts and Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! That it’s not better known may be a side effect of auteurism – even underground, grindhouse or schlock filmmakers have gained reps through producing a body of work, but no one is 100% sure who directed Miss Leslie’s Dolls – it’s credited to Joseph G. Prieto, who may or may not be Joseph Mawra – making it a dead end one-off. It’s a sex film with minimal nudity … a horror film with little suspense … and a chamber drama with performances that range from zombie-like to wildly exaggerated. But it nevertheless has an oneiric charge, and a rare instance of a true camp lead performance rather than the sort of drag queen send-up found in most fringe efforts of the period.
After a hideous goon has stolen the naked corpse of a girl from a fresh grave in a prologue that serves as a promise that more horror and titillation will eventually come along, we are introduced to a typical small group of folks travelling through a thunderstorm and forced to seek shelter at an old dark house. Miss Frost (Terri Juston), a supposedly repressed teacher (white trenchcoat buttoned up to the neck, Velma-from-Scooby-Doo glasses), is supervising Lily (Marcelle Bichette) and Martha (Kitty Lewis) plus horny hanger-on Roy (Charles Pitts). The students nag the barely older teacher for being a prude and a square, but it turns out she’s just the 1960s nudie movie version of a lesbian … and eventually doffs her coat and glasses and undoes her red hair to be more outgoing. The house they barge into belongs to Miss Leslie (Salvador Ugarte), a guy in drag dubbed by a woman, who keeps a diorama of life-size wax girls on display in the basement, and remembers losing her mother in a fire in their wax museum (a bit of backstory cribbed from House of Wax, which gives away a climax that mingles the ending of that film with the finale of Psycho). Miss Leslie takes a shine to Martha, whom she thinks is a reincarnation of a previous girl called Martha whose body she coveted – in a sexfilm way and, as it turns out, in an occult movie way.
Over the long night, there’s a deal of bed-hopping – given the film’s obscurity, it’s more likely to be a precedent for The Rocky Horror Show than an influence on it, but it has the polysexual and genderfluid angle nailed down – and eventually a rampage with an axe (the gore is of the bright scarlet H.G. Lewis variety) and a great deal of dubbed ranting from Miss L. The dialogue, credited to Prieto and Ralph J. Remy, is overripe (‘Blotto, ain’t it? The wax figures look like goddesses of a weird love cult.’) but delivered without embarrassment. Most films from this area of titillation have too many lulls and longeurs to be entertaining even as kitsch, but this at least keeps its story-wheels in motion and springs fresh, bizarre, nightmarish ideas an images every few minutes. Will the models struggling hard to stay still come to life for real or only in a hallucination sequence? What hideousness lies under Miss Leslie’s dreadful wig? Who was that goon at the beginning? Is Martha back from the dead? The answers to these questions will probably fade from the mind before you give this one a rewatch, but there are strange pleasures to be found – especially in this gorgeous BluRay transfer, with eye-popping primary colours – in the discovery.
Kim Newman is a novelist, critic and broadcaster. His fiction includes Anno Dracula, Life’s Lottery and The Man from the Diogenes Club. His non-fiction includes Nightmare Movies, Horror: 100 Best Books and BFI Classics studies of Cat People and Doctor Who. He is a contributing editor to Sight & Sound and Empire.