❉ DON’T GO INTO THE CELLAR, as they said on Rentaghost.
“Made on a budget that often approached nine or ten whole dollars, Miss Leslie’s Dolls doesn’t shy away from using cliches – and it’s not clear that the filmmakers knew they were cliches. There’s thunder and lightning, and a cross-dressing man (this 1973 world isn’t likely to be as nuanced as to tell us if she’s actually a transwoman) stroking a black cat.”
Who doesn’t love a Cuban horror film, hey?
Also, who knew that Cuban horror films were a thing?
And yet here we are, watching a film made in Florida by a Cuban director and a Cuban lead actor. And it only gets weirder from here on in.
Made on a budget that often approached nine or ten whole dollars, it doesn’t shy away from using cliches – and it’s not clear that the filmmakers knew they were cliches. A car with three women and one man breaks down in the middle of a cemetery, because the shortest route between Boston and anywhere in Florida is through a makeshift-looking cemetery.
There’s thunder and lightning, because of course there is, and a cross-dressing man (this 1973 world isn’t likely to be as nuanced as to tell us if she’s actually a transwoman) stroking a black cat. The phone line is down, because of course it is, and the bridge to town has been washed away by the river, because of course it has.
Then we wait for the plot to get started. It takes a while. A long while.
A very long while.
While we wait, we get to watch Salvador Ugarte playing Miss Leslie… although not her voice. This is badly overdubbed by someone else, who wishes to remain anonymous. For good reason, as this film was clearly best known as a CV stain for everybody who appeared in it.
The plot appears to start 23 minutes in, when the wooden Roy discovers a tableau of mannequins of women. And the mannequins really look like people, down to the fact that they don’t quite keep still, not that Roy notices this. Or indeed anything.
We then take to opportunity to stop the plot again and fill some time with exposition, before everybody partakes of the drugged wine because of course the wine is drugged.
Fifteen minutes later and it’s time for bed… for the characters. The rest of us have still got 50 minutes before we can join them. But at least we don’t have to climb into the nylon sheets they’ve been offered. A strange thing: Roy is told to sleep downstairs, but instead goes to bed with one of the girls, Martha. Or possibly Lily. Which is lucky, as she’s been given a double bed to herself. The other two girls are sharing a single. It’s probably best if you don’t think about this too much. Also its best not to think about how the other girls are happy to ladle out their udders at the slightest opportunity, but whilst getting cunnilingus from Roy, Martha (Lily?) keeps hers tightly wrapped with a blanket. Odd.
By the way, the film is 45 minutes in now, with few signs of a plot, but Miss Frost – “just call me Alma, darling” – is putting the moves on Lily, or possibly Martha, so at least that fills in the time.
52 minutes in and we might be getting some plot again. Miss Leslie has got hold of a dead body, whose lower regions are wrapped but breasts are not, and plunges her into some truly filthy water, which will stop her from rotting, but presumably give the poor actress concerned amoebic dysentery. The corpse willingly cooperates with this, keeping her hands firmly by her sides, which is unusual in a cadaver, but most welcome. Miss Leslie then heads down to the cellar to talk to Mrs Bates… sorry, her mother. Well, her mother’s skull. Well, a prop skull that’s clearly made of resin. But if it worked for Hitchcock, it must work for Senor Joseph G Prieto.
The, rather one-sided, conversation between Miss Leslie and her mother’s bones gives us a good opportunity to get some exposition in, explaining to the audiences how she got into this mess and how she’ll get out of it by stealing and possessing the body of Martha.
Ooh, we’re an hour in, and to hell with the plot. Miss Leslie strangles Roy, probably getting splinters, and then kills Lily (Martha? Pretty sure it’s Lily) with an axe. She then grabs Alma and starts to hypnotise the hysterically screaming woman using a pocket watch on a chain. Yes. And it works.
Alma and Martha awake in the strange mannequin tableau from earlier, which now features Roy’s head on the altar. That’s the best acting he’s done all night. The mannequins awake and mime… well, pantomime… their pleasure at being thawed out, recoil at the head on the altar (after all, he’s not very good looking) and run over to Martha to have a fiddle with her tits and to start poking at Alma. And not in that way, either.
Are you following this? What, really? Oh, okay then.
The mannequins run around Alma to a voiceover of screaming, whilst disco lights play over them.
This goes on for quite some time.
They finally stop when Miss Leslie returns with her blood-dripping axe… and Alma wakes up on her own in the single bed she was previously sharing with Martha. Or Lily.
She does the obvious thing and goes looking for Miss Leslie – not Roy, Martha or Lily – in just her short nightie. Miss Leslie is nowhere to be found, but there’s purple paint, possibly meant to be blood, who knows, all over the kitchen.
Miss Leslie is in the cellar with Martha’s dead body, blaming her mother for… stuff. Alma follows the purple paint back into the mannequin room, pauses to make sure we can properly see her nipples through the sheer fabric of her nightie, and makes her way down into the cellar.
DON’T GO INTO THE CELLAR, as they said on Rentaghost.
There she finds Lily’s body, an axe mark in her face. Her screams get Miss Leslie’s attention in her mother’s skull’s room. Instead of stealing Martha’s body, which had been the point of everything until now, Miss Leslie decides that she’ll have Alma’s body instead. Fickle bitch.
Alma rips Miss Leslie’s wig off, taking half her face with it along with the actress who had been doing the her voice. Miss Leslie is – shock – A MAN. A disfigured man, who now also has a hunched back. Because.
Alma makes a run for it out of the house, pursued by Miss Leslie. Roy wakes up and finds that he’s been locked in a handy cell we weren’t previously aware of.
With ten minutes left, Alma and Miss Leslie find themselves in a forest. Well, running around half a dozen trees doubling as a forest. Eventually they end up back in the cemetery from the beginning, where Miss Leslie, who was The Watcher all along, merges with Alma to become the Fifth Doctor. Alma’s soul departs, leaving Miss Leslie, in Alma’s body, to wake up and celebrate her newfound good looks and large titties, and to discover Miss Leslie’s old body, now reduced to a dress and a very polished skull.
She goes back to rescue Roy… who doesn’t understand what has being going on. Much like the rest of us.
Lord Harlech rated this an ‘X’ in 1973 – which indicates, I believe, that he very much enjoyed it. The modern BBFC have revised that rating down to a ’15’.
The film was apparently shot on 35mm, but the low lighting has introduced a quite nasty grain into the stock, so it looks more like 16mm. There’s some light scratching, again more like you’d expect on 16mm, but the colour has held out well. Not too much fading and not oversaturated.
The SDH subtitles are done by a person listening to the film soundtrack rather than from the script, assuming the film had one, so contain the odd mistranscriptions.
There was clearly little Network Distributing felt that they could add to this disc – but along with the film and a selection of photocopied pictures from the set and of adverts in the trades is an essay by We Are Cult contributor Laura Mayne.
❉ Network released Miss Leslie’s Dolls on Blu-ray & DVD 3rd September, and Digital on 1st October.
Order Blu-ray or DVD on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2vz75OR
❉ Historian Russ J Graham is Editor-in-Chief of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System.