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Plot: reality show contestants run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

For reasons both inexplicable and incomprehensible the Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise is Rene Perez’ most persistent property next to his zombie series The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) and his penchant for reimagining classic European fairytales for mature audiences. He keeps churning out these things with no notable improvements (and with little variation) between episodes. The only fundamental change is that the series after Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2018) was rebranded as simply Havoc with Cry Havoc (2019) acting as the first episode under the flagship series’ new name. At best it’s a cosmetic change that has little to no bearing on the more fundamental problems that plagued this series since its beginnings in 2015. The original Playing with Dolls (2015) had its problems. The actual slashing was fairly minimal and it wasn’t remotely scare or tense. It did have a cool looking killer and the dynamic duo of Natasha Blasick and Alanna Forte remain unmatched. Redundancy and regression has long plagued the slasher subgenre and Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust is a good example of the American slasher persisting despite decades-long creative inertia and erosion.

Those hoping that Perez would at long last manifest something, anything, to warrant Playing with Dolls existing beyond the original will be sorely disappointed. If Playing With Dolls (2015) was a stylistic exercise, a mood piece above all else, then Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust is where things, minimal as they were, show mild signs of improvement. There’s an almost Jim Wynorski quality to the oeuvre of Rene Perez in that he shoots his features in a similar breakneck pace with little regard to things like screenwriting or stylistic cohesion. Like Big Apple breastlover Wynorski or Hawaiian low-budget specialist Albert Pyun, Perez too has access to a pool of actresses many of whom don’t seem to mind taking their tops off whenever the script requires. Granted Perez is only minimally exploitative but like the New York grandmaster his projects also seem to be based more on premises rather than finished scripts and by and large seem like an excuse to get his assembled actresses out of their clothes. Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust at least makes strides forward in terms of special effects but remains as anemic as ever in terms of narrative. Once again fishing in the model pool Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust has the good fortune of having Elonda Seawood - a last-minute replacement for Alanna Forte from the original - as a minority character not afraid to show off her goods.

Four people are lured to a remote cabin in a densely forested region under guise of a reality TV show. Each contestant has different reasons for partaking in the show. Stina (Karin Brauns, as Karin Isabell Brauns) is poor white trash, has a tween daughter (Leia Perez) to support, and just walked out on a titty bar job on moral objections. Magnus (Colin Bryant) is a struggling single father who has a son (Logan Serr) from a previous marriage to support. Nico (Elonda Seawood) is the prerequisite sassy black girl and thus has a full bra and an empty head, while Rodrigo (Andrew Espinoza Long) was apparently chosen for his intellect and wits. Their gravelly-voiced hostess Trudy (Marilyn Robrahm) informs them that whoever survives the week at the cabin will be awarded one million dollars in prize money and play the prestigious lead role in an upcoming horror production in the area. The cabin and surrounding woodland are monitored by an extensive surveillance system and the four are told that a deranged killer is on the loose. What they don’t know is that the killer isn’t an actor but Prisoner AYO-886 (Charlie Glackin). They are the latest “dolls” for him to “play with” in another social experiment from wealthy entrepreneur Scopophilio (Richard Tyson), who still continues to kidnap attractive young women (Omnia Bixler) as a side business.

In the hands of a professional screenwriter Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust could have said something about celebrity culture, society’s treatment of the poor and the marginalized, and race relations. Instead we’re stuck with one-note archetypes that barely qualify as characters. Stina is poor white trash (“mommy didn’t get an education” is her one and only defining line of dialogue), Magnus is the victim of poor decision-making, Rodrigo comes from an affluent background, and Nico is an airhead whose sole mission it is to show the world her magnificent rack. Speaking of large-breasted women and their fate in this kind of horror, just like Alanna Forte in the original, the opening gambit with Emma Chase Robertson coming to a gruesome end serves no function and won’t ever be referenced again. At no point does Perez show the slightest interest in expanding the Playing with Dolls (2015) premise. Instead of offering some insight into why exactly Scopophilio is doing what he does, or establishing any kind of backstory for Prisoner AYO-886 Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust has only the most ephemeral of plot. It is content to do what Playing with Dolls (2015) did the year before with a slightly larger set of characters. The only change (if it can be called that) is that Prisoner AYO-886 is no longer the conflicted colossus reluctant to kill and his increased bloodlust translates in a newfound penchant for severing extremities. Likewise is he no longer burdened by a plot-convenient conscience and the kill scenes make good use of his hulking presence and love for sharp-edged weapons.

The special effects work from Debbie and Joseph Cornell and Ryan Jenkins is far more ambitious and better realized than the minimalist original. Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust does not shy away from blood and gore although bloodsplatters and gunshot wounds still appear to be of the reviled CGI variety rather than more old fashioned practical effects that worked wonders for the classics. As turgid and tedious most of Perez’ movies tend to be at least the landscapes and locations he chooses to shoot in are uniformly beautiful. Especially the caves to and from Scopophilio’s subterranean hideout and the richly decorated tree-lair of Prisoner AYO-886. No wonder they featured more prominently in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) a year down the line. Perez could probably use them as a location for a potential remake of Alien 2: On Earth (1980), not that we would want to give him any ideas. Or rather we do, if Death Kiss (2018) is anything to go by Perez knows his classics. It makes you wonder why he hasn’t given the world that much pined after LETHAL Ladies derivate yet.

The obvious and natural question to arise is, of course, whether it was necessary to extent Playing with Dolls beyond the original? The answer to that is a glaring and resounding “no”. Playing with Dolls (2015) was decent for what it was, but didn’t warrant frequent revisiting. About the only ray of light was Alanna Forte during the opening gambit. Playing with Dolls (2015) seems to have drawn all the wrong conclusions from Friday the 13th (1980) and its very many inferior imitations from all over the world. Playing With Dolls: Bloodlust is largely cut from the same cloth and isn’t very interested in doing something beyond the basics of what is expected of a backwood slasher. Perez probably would excel in a Julia X (2011) imitation or a derivate of Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) which also featured plenty of nubile women in flagrante delicto and with little in the way of clothes. Practical effects notwithstanding Playing With Dolls: Bloodlust is decent at best but has little to offer beyond bloody kills. If anything, at least it showed that Playing With Dolls as a series was developing something resembling a pulse. What the continued (and continuing) existence of Rene Perez proves is that we finally seem to have a worthy heir to the dubious cinematic throne of Albert Pyun.

Plot: pious, virtuous nun is offered the temptations of the flesh by Satan.

While it was Great Britain that had the dubious honour of kicking off the nunsploitation cycle with Ken Russell’s iconoclastic The Devils (1971), it were the most devout contries of continental Europe (Spain and Italy, in particular) that gleefully embraced imitating The Exorcist (1973) and exhibited an almost religious zeal in indulging in its more sacrilegious inclinations. In France Joël Séria’s Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) had a dedicated segment and from there nunsploitation was the only next logical avenue. In Poland there was Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1978) and Czechoslovakia’s Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970) is a lot of things, but it certainly was not nunsploitation the way it was typically understood. That Mexico would end up creating one of the subgenre’s more defining and enduring works should come as no surprise. The country had a long history in horror, and it was and is both deeply superstitious and devoutly Christian. The only to surpass Satánico Pandemónium in sheer blasphemy, scorn, and irreverence was Brazilian filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma’s unparallelled masterpiece Alucarda (1977). In the company of such greatness it’s easy to forget that Italy got there earliest with The Demon (1963) preceding both The Exorcist (1973) and nunsploitation as a whole.

Gilberto Martínez Solares had a long career going all the way back to 1939 and in the six decades that he was active he directed just about every mainstream genre (romance, drama, comedy, etc) under the sun. He even helmed one or two Blue Demon and El Santo luchador movies – but none of his voluminous repertoire has attained the kind of longevity and prestige that Satánico Pandemónium has. On top of that, as near as we can tell, this was Solares’ only foray into horror. Perhaps that is why Satánico Pandemónium is filled to the brim with artful shots and visually arresting imagery. It’s always interesting when mainstream directors decide to helm a genre film. As with any production everything hinges on the lead. For that reason alone Cecilia Pezet was an interesting choice. Not in the least because she hardly ever did horror. Overflowing with enough clerical sleaze and containing enough corrupted Catholical imagery to satiate any agnostic, atheist, or anti-theist Satánico Pandemónium has lost none of its baroque charm and shock value. Even almost forty years later it’s is a towering genre achievement.

22-year-old Lutheran nun María (Cecilia Pezet) lives a virtuous and ecclesiastical life sequestered away in a Protestant convent somewhere in rural Mexico. In quiet resignaton the nuns live an impoverished life of celibacy, prayer, and contemplation. Whenever they are not being harangued or scolded, by Mother Superior (Delia Magaña) for their infractions they submit, as scripture dictates, to corporal mortification and self-flagellation. The closest thing to a friend María has is sister Caridad (Veronika Con K., as Verónica Avila). María is the youngest and described as the purest and most pious of her order. One day she's out picking flowers in a meadow when she's tempted by Luzbel (Enrique Rocha). Running away she encounters her friend Marcelo (Daniel Albertos) and helps him with feeding one of his lambs. On the way home María again is tempted by Luzbel. María tries to live a virtuous and sin-free life and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to balance the crushing weight and burden of her maidenhood with the nigh on insurmountable ballast that is her devotion to God. Matters are complicated by the fact that she’s haunted by visions of Luzbel by day and overcome by carnal lust and perverse desire at night. Sin, it seems, lurks everywhere.

After Compline Luzbel continues to seduce María. She's overcome by temptations of the mind and of the flesh. In her dwelling she's raped by a fellow nun (Verónica Rivas) or so she believes because when she comes to Luzbel’s lying on top of her. Soon sister Clemencia (Clemencia Colín) and a novice (Amparo Furstenberg) come relaying their increasing and continuing struggle with their vows and the natural inclinations that come with their age. Ever since that innocent stroll in the woods the other day María has been haunted by impure thoughts and is sometimes stricken by carnal urges of perverted desire. When Caridad commits suicide by hanging and Marcelo and his aging mother (Velia Lupercio) die under mysterious circumstances Mother Superior accuses young María of bringing sin into the convent. Forced to choose between her two masters María declares that Satan has been living inside of her and strangles the tyrannical Reverend Mother with a rope magically appearing in her possession. Surrendering to a life of blasphemy and vice María swears that if she cannot live her life in service of Christ then she’ll become an apprentice of Satan. Not only does she promise to visit heresy upon her sleepy village - she vows to bring down the convent, and if possible, the Protestant Church in its entirety, with her no matter the cost.

What could possibly be said about Cecilia Pezet in what was more or less her swansong theatrical performance? She would appear in La lucha con la pantera (1975) afterwards and here she’s, thankfully, cast against type for once. This, more than anything, served to amplify her performance manifold. Pezet’s portrayal of María is one of quiet agitation, understated misanthropy, and (during the third act) violent homicidal retribution. It’s at least as powerful, by sheer contrast alone, as Jeanne Goupil’s youthful exuberance and wide-eyed malevolence in Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) and Tina Romero’s legendary hysterical, maniacal, hair-raising performance in and as Alucarda (1977). Likewise does Enrique Rocha take great pleasure in his role as Luzbel who introduces María to the pleasures of the flesh and whose corrupting influence will eventually bring down the Church. Delia Magaña was one of the great divas of Mexican cinema and theatre who made a name for herself for her many comedic roles. Magaña attended cocktail parties with Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Verónika con K. was a singer and soap opera regular who just as frequently worked as a television presenter. The remainder of the cast were either enthusiast first-timers while others experienced brief careers that didn’t really go anywhere.

And who could possibly forget Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium writhing seductively in Robert Rodriguez’ beloved genre-hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where she was dressed in little more than that tiny bikini, feathery headgear, and a slithering snake? If anyone reintroduced Solares’ masterpiece to a mainstream general audience, this was the where and the when. Rodriguez grew up on and in the grindhouse and he has been a staunch defender of exploitation cinema no matter how much Hollywood tries to force him into a mainstream direction. What better way to pay tribute to Mexico's greatest exploitation's than to have the latest superstar proudly bearing its name? Satánico Pandemónium was one of those legendary milestones, that there was something far darker brooding within the collective subconscious. The time of the Universal inspired gothics of the prior decade now was very well in the past. Like its Spanish counterpart Mexican horror is at its best when it bathes in that decaying, mildewy atmosphere and is unafraid to lay fire upon the Church and its adherents. Satánico Pandemónium has something for everybody, and a whole new generation of horror fans should be exposed to its malefic glory and dripping misanthropy.