Tuesday 21 August 2018

Dark Eyes Retrovision #1 - Miss Leslie's Dolls (USA 1973 - Dir Joseph G. Prieto)

We're gonna go back...right back etc etc for a new strand on my blog.

Once upon a time if you wanted to see movies broadly classified as 'lost grindhouse classics' you'd be looking to US labels like 'Something Weird Video' for your visual fix. Well those times have definitely changed, and now here's the respectable but always reliable UK company, Network, bringing us a shiny new Blu Ray of the oft talked about, rarely seen Miss Leslie's Dolls, a copy of which finally resurfaced at the end of the previous decade.

Miami dwelling Cuban born Prieto's directing history between 1951 and 1973 brought us just five films, although he may also have been known as Joseph Mawra, the guy that gave the world the infamous Olga movies of the 1960s (in a recent interview he claimed to have had nothing to do with Miss Leslie's Dolls, so the jury seems to still be out as to whether they're one and the same person). I confess that apart from this one I have only seen Prieto's second movie, 1967's Shanty Tramp, curated by Nicolas Winding Refn for the MUBI channel a while back. Shanty Tramp, for all its Meyeresque touches, is an essentially moral and rather bleak tale of one woman's impact on a small town, and something of that bleakness survives in MLD, sadly Prieto's last film as director.

Alma Frost, teacher at a Boston University, is far from home in a car with three of her students (actually the movie was shot in Florida, so they're a long way from home). When the car breaks down in the middle of a storm, they find shelter in a house, which turns out to be the home of Miss Leslie. Now from the outset it's clear that 'Miss' Leslie is probably a Mister with a wig and dress - having 'her' voice dubbed by a woman just makes things more confusing. Turns out that Miss Leslie has a basement full of dolls that have been created from live people - an old plot device borrowed from 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum and even Carry on Screaming (1966). The householder's wild look recalls that most famous cinematic cross dresser, Norman Bates, and indeed Miss Leslie has the preserved skull of her mother to talk to, conversations which reveal that her real aim in ensnaring the young people is to kill and be reborn through one of them, discarding her old body and choosing a considerably newer version. But Miss Leslie is a bit of a rubbish necromancer, and before you know it there are bodies everywhere, and our psychopath sets her sights on Miss Frost, the formerly buttoned up teacher whose sapphic urges have been released after her coffee is spiked.

Depending on your appetite for grindhouse schlock, this is either a really tiresome picture or a big curio. I am of course in the latter camp, and MLD is a blast, despite its initially rather torpid pace. Lighter on softcore content than I was expecting, it gets by on its sheer chicken orientalness. Central to this is the Cuban writer and actor Salvador Ugarte as Miss Leslie, as demented a performance as you are ever likely to see. Ugarte's only screen role, I'm guessing he was borderline unemployable after this one. With his strange monologues and totally committed performance you can't take your eyes off him. None of the rest of the 'actors' command anything like this level of interest - there's a lot of standing around - but with Ugarte in nearly every scene, who cares?

Network's release is based on original film elements and is probably better than it ever looked on the big screen. Disc extras are scant (a photo gallery) but there's an accompanying booklet on the film by Dr Laura Mayne. It'll be released, to the delight of degenerate grindhouse fans everywhere, on Blu Ray/DVD from 3 September 2018, and digitally from 1 October 2018.

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