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Plot: journalist and detective run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

Cry Havoc is the first installment in the newly-minted Havoc series, and the fourth in the original (and much larger) Playing with Dolls franchise. After three Playing with Dolls episodes writer-director Rene Perez has finally come to the realization that a slasher cannot work on a premise alone. Cry Havoc is what Playing with Dolls (2015) should have been some four years earlier. As a soft reboot of sorts Cry Havoc, for the first time in the series, actually attempts to tell a story. Cry Havoc ramps up the gore to Alex Chandon levels while increasing the boobage as if he’s trying to channel the spirit of the late Andy Sidaris. In truth it’s just an elaborate excuse to have a character utter the famous English military command, "Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war."

Investigative journalist Ellen Weaver (Emily Sweet) thinks she has happened upon the opportunity of a lifetime. She has been given the chance to interview an enigmatic and reclusive criminal mastermind who goes by the handle of The Voyeur. After a number of increasingly ridiculous precautionary measures Weaver is taken to his hidden compound by press liaison miss Wallace (Linda Bott). The Voyeur turns out to be none other than The Watcher, or Scopophilio (Richard Tyson) as he was once known. Weaver informs after the ethics and morality behind his skewed social experiments and the criterions by which he choses his “dolls” for psychotic masked serial killer Prisoner AYO-886 (J.D. Angstadt), these days simply referred to as Havoc, to “play with”. The Voyeur explains how he found Havoc and that these experiments in homicide aren’t his first. When The Voyeur questions her motives for accepting the interview Weaver suddenly finds the tables turned on her. Instead of becoming a famous reporter she awakens in Havoc’s woodlands. Around the same time a hard-boiled police detective (Robert Kovacs, as Robert Bronzi) has tracked down the whereabouts of his missing daughter (Spring Inés Peña) to a mysterious woodland area and cabin. In his search he comes across survivor Stina (Karin Brauns) but is too single-minded to safe her. The area is monitored and guarded by an extensive surveillance system and the well-equipped Echo private para-military force. Nor the Echo leader (J.D. Angstadt) and his troops or Havoc are going to let anybody trespass their domain without consequence.

For better or worse Cry Havoc seems to serve as a soft reboot of sorts. For starters it does away with the Playing with Dolls name and, perhaps more importantly, distills the basic outline of the previous three installments into a brief info dump (complete with recycled footage) to set up what should have been the backstory of the original Playing with Dolls (2015). If anything else, Cry Havoc is the most ambitious of the current Playing with Dolls episodes. Perez always was a good enough cinematographer and he has an eye for locations and composition. As such Cry Havoc is custodian to some of his best work yet. Everything from the camera set-ups, scene compositions, lighting, and the more mobile nature of various sequences; everything screams ambition. Perez still is in no hurry to detail the origins or Havoc or to humanize him, and as a barb-wired composite of Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, and Ogroff Havoc truly is about the only thing the Havoc franchise has going for it. Well, that and the attractive babes Rene Perez keeps finding to take their clothes off and die. Usually in that order.

For the first time in the series there seems to be a concerted effort on Perez’ part to flesh out, both literally and figuratively, what few characters there are. In record time he manages to get Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, and Nicole Renae Miracle out of their clothes. It feels almost as if Perez is angling and testing the waters for something completely else. Not that we would mind. At this point Rene seems to dabble almost exclusively in horror, westerns, thrillers, and various permutations thereof. His European fairytale adaptations have completely halted in favor of expanding upon his existing franchises. Given Rene’s predilection for high-octane action (which he is, admittedly, pretty good at staging and filming) and beautiful babes we’re still holding out hope that he will finally helm that long awaited LETHAL Ladies franchise derivate the world has been silently pining for. It would be the ideal excuse for Rene to bring back Alanna Forte, Elonda Seawood, Sierra Sherbundy, Nicole Renae Miracle, Spring Inés Peña, and beloved Perez veterans Irina Levadneva, Jenny Allford, Nadia Lanfranconi, Omnia Bixler, and Stormi Maya. Put them in small candy-colored bikinis and have them flaunt over-sized guns on sunbaked California beaches. If the late Andy Sidaris managed to perfect that formula in the eighties and nineties, there’s no reason why Rene wouldn’t be able to do the same in and for the current day and age.

The biggest change of guard in the last couple of years is J.D. Angstadt taking over from Charlie Glackin as Havoc. Glackin could be last seen as the masked killer in Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016), and remains within Perez’ stock company. Angstadt took over the character for Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) and there isn’t too much of a difference between Glackin’s earlier portrayals, and Angstadt’s current iteration. As this is a villain-centric series nobody’s really here for the other characters and they are merely here to facilitate the body count. The kills have become more creative and spectacularly bloody where and whenever possible. From Glackin’s almost spectral killer to Angstadt’s brute force hack-and-slash madman Havoc is the reason to stick around. A running joke of sorts that continues with Cry Havoc is that Perez remains adamant about not explaining why Havoc is so aghast and repulsed by the sight of his female victims’ exposed breasts. It’s probably something Freudian and one of the enduring mysteries of the Playing with Dolls franchise. That it continues to persist three sequels in remains unintentionally funny no matter how you slice it. Breasts are, of course, something no Perez feature is complete without so he invents plenty of excuses for his actresses to either undress or lose their tops whenever convenient.

It stands to reason that Rene Perez is a resourceful enough director who’s able to make much of what is, by all accounts, very little. While he isn’t the best writer around (he doesn’t work with scripts as much as he works around scenes and set-pieces we're told) he has an eye for visually arresting locales in his native California, and he’s able to continually work with hungry young actors and actresses. Over the last decade he has shown that he’s able to creatively work around budgetary limitations, and mask them where and whenever possible. There’s no question that Perez could possibly do greater things if he was able to work with a director of photography as Benjamin Combes, George Mooradian, or Howard Wexler. In the two years since Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) Oliver Müller and Marcus Koch have grown along Perez and the two worked on an array of high-profile productions since then. As disciples of Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero there’s no question as to why they are so in-demand when it comes to splattery prosthetic special effects. If only Rene could find a decent writing partner, and try his hand at some different genres (spy-action, cyberpunk, martial arts) and he’s well on his way (together with, say, Neil Johnson) of usurping the throne vacated by the late Albert Pyun. Prisoner AYO-886 or Havoc is one of Perez’ greatest creations. Four years, and two sequels, removed from the original Playing with Dolls (2015) sees Perez, now almost a decade deep into his career, actually showing some mild promise.

In all likelihood we haven’t seen the last of either Havoc or the Playing with Dolls series. Of all the things Rene Perez has done over the years this ongoing franchise has proven to be the most lucrative, by far. Given how Perez has been working with pennies and small change it makes you wonder what he could do on an actual budget. That Perez hasn’t yet been contracted by The Asylum, TomCat Films, Kings Of Horror, or similar low budget production/distribution companies remains a mystery as well. If Rene Perez has proven anything, besides his tenacity, over the last decade is that he’s able to work around whatever limitations are imposed on him. There’s a lot of dreck to be found in the slasher subgenre and it’s rare seeing a director this young grown that much in just a few years. To go from the non-committal Playing with Dolls (2015) to something as confident and straightforward as Cry Havoc is worthy of admiration. It’s not exactly a loving pastiche to stab-and-hack horror in the way Benjamin Combes’ Commando Ninja (2018) was to 80s action. No, Cry Havoc finally knows what it wants to be. It’s not pretty, and even by slasher standards it’s perfunctory, but at least it has an identity its predecessors so lacked. It might not be much, but it’s a beginning.

Plot: young couple are haunted by ghosts in their new home.

Midnight Hair (夜半梳頭 or Comb your Hair in the Middle of the Night, released in some markets under the more simple title of Fatal Beauty), is another in a long line of, frankly, featureless and virtually interchangeable Mainland China ghost horrors that - two decades removed from the infinitely superior Ringu (1998), and a decade-plus from such diverse and atmospheric genre pieces as The Eye (2002), Ju-on (2002), and even Dark Water (2002) – bears more of a resemblance to Netflix fodder as We Are Not Alone (2016) and Verónica (2017). It’s anybody's guess why China insists on churning out these things en masse and it beggars belief why the Film Bureau insists on greenlighting so many of these things since they’re all the same anyway. Not even Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) were as desperate and convoluted as this flaming trainwreck of a production. It has the ominous shadows, the stereotypical synth score, and enough completely telegraphed jumpscares to scare the non-horror fan witless. Much scarier of a prospect, however, is that Midnight Hair is so unbelievably uniform in its conformity that not even Daniella Wang Li Danni’s ample (and often gratuitously displayed) cleavage is able to offer any solace.

Daniella Wang Li Danni (王李丹妮) is a fashion model that was discovered on the 2010 China Fashion Underwear Model Contest. Wang is perhaps best described as the Amy Yip Ji-Mei of the Instagram generation. Chinese netizens have crowned Daniella “China's Goddess of Boobs” (never mind that Wang’s of Mongolian descent) because China has something of an obsession with boobs. Not that we mind. Whereas Yip became famous for her “Yip tease” (where she went to great lengths not to show anything in her contractual nude scenes, kind of like Chingmy Yau with Jing Wong) Wang’s early fame was built on exactly the opposite. Daniella did famously expose her bust (and pretty much everything else) in Due West: Our Sex Journey (2012) and Due West 2: Our Sex Vacation (2015). Unfortunately Daniella won’t be letting her famous puppies loose here with this being a Mainland China production. That doesn’t stop Midnight Hair from exploiting Wang’s presence and curvature to the fullest. Say what you will about Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春), Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂), Yang Ke (杨可), and Zhu Ke Er (朱可). They never had to lower themselves to the assorted indignities of the Category III genre. Believe it or not, Wang has actually managed to eke out a very respectable career on the big and small screen.

A Mu (Lee Wei) moves with his two months pregnant wife Le Xiaomei (Daniella Wang Li Danni) into the villa of his friend A Ming (Dai Xiang-Yu). Once they are settled in Xiaomei begins to see the apparition of a ghostly woman in the house, a painting that keeps reappearing no matter how many times she disposes of it, and a creepy doll that keeps turning up in the strangest places and times. The situation doesn’t get any beter when a series of boxes with threatening messages arrive at their doorstep. One day the couple visit the orphanage where A Mu and A Ming grew up together. Aunt Zhang (Sun Gui-Tian) tells Xiaomei how he maintained a long relationship with Gingqing (Yang Zi-Tong) that lasted well into adulthood, but acrimoniously ended when Gingqing left him for another man. Xiaomei comes to the realization that they ghosts that have been haunting her abode aren’t ghosts in the metaphysical sense, but ghosts from the past. Now that the secret of A Mu and A Ming is out, who can she trust?

Usually there are two types of Chinese ghost movies: those made in Mainland China and those produced outside of it. Typically (but not always) those made outside of the Mainland are far stronger in every aspect that matters. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and the Koreas have a good enough pedigree in that respect. Generally they are subject of laxer regulations and government censorship, and thus allow for more unbridled creativity, irrespective whether they are based on ancient folklore or more urban examples of the genre. Mainland China, being the hermetic and isolationist society that it is, is bound by a completely different set of government-sanctioned regulations than the rest of the country and its culturally similar neighbors. To dispense with the obvious (at least to anyone who has seen one or two of these things), Mainland China ghost movies never feature any actual ghosts, unless they are adapted from old folkloric tales. Anything in an urban setting typically never does. A good writer and director might be able to skirt around these regulations, but more often than not these productions are helmed by inexperienced younglings.

It’s easy to blame Daniella Wang Li Danni for this debacle, but in truth she’s merely a symptom of a far bigger problem that director Liu Ning and writer Tang Jia-Qi have allowed to fester. That is, despite all the convoluted plot twists and last-minute revelations, Midnight Hair is a garden-variety thriller (and not even a very good one at that) masquerading as a supposed ghost horror. It has all the basic hallmarks of a ghost horror (creepy dolls, ominous portraits, cryptic notes; dark shadows, plenty of telegraphed jumpscares, et al) yet by all accounts is a by-the-book thriller that isn’t exactly very riveting or thrilling, for that matter. The ghost aspect is preposterous to begin with because Mainland China doesn’t allow for ghosts per government rule. As a result many of these features tend to be on the vanilla side of perfunctory and bland in their stark utilitarianism. Often, once you have seen enough of these things, the most interesting part is guessing which convoluted excuse the writers used in whatever feature you happen to be watching to explain the non-appearance of a ghost. The writing isn’t exactly terrible with Midnight Hair, but it makes you wonder why they insisted on making this a supposed ghost horror when it worked beter as a thriller.

This being a general market release Daniella Wang Li Danni isn’t allowed to do much in terms of nudity and as such isn’t able to steam up these exceedingly dull proceedings the way you’d expect. There’s a strange duality to the way Midnight Hair treats its sole star. She painted as the stereotypical innocent ingénue and prerequisite damsel-in-distress for the majority of the feature, yet in the same breath she’s hypersexualized and (often for no discernable reason whatsoever) an unwilling victim of groping and extensive near-softcore cleavage shots and simulated lovemaking scenes. The obligatory shower scene is accounted for, and just like Bollywood filmmakers in the eighties director Liu Ning shows unexpected creativity in finding ways of keeping Daniella covered without resorting to optical fogging or having her wear a swimsuit. Unlike those ancient Spanish fantaterror flicks no nudity-heavy international market versions seem to exist and Midnight Hair is strictly aimed at the domestic market.

Just like Three On A Meathook (1972) or the more recent Mainland China ghost horror Haunted Sisters (2017) this one is also heavily indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterclass in suspense Psycho (1960). It speaks to the inventiveness of Hitchcock’s most enduring work that filmmakers from every corner of the world and across genres are still imitating his innovations some 50 years after the fact. Midnight Hair does have the obligatory shower scene, but Chrissie Chau Sau-Na’s in Cold Pupil (2013) was at least somewhat in the general direction of the famous Janet Leigh scene. Neither offers up a gander of either actress’ figure in silhouette the way old Alfred did. The similarities with Psycho (1960) continue with the third act last-minute revelation as to the nature of the killer’s homicidal psychosis. Just like in Three On A Meathook (1972) there’s an amateurish info dump towards the end after which Midnight Hair abruptly ends, Italian style. William Girdler wasn’t able to handle it in the seventies, and neither is writer Tang Jia-Qi some four decades later. There’s a throwaway scene in the beginning where Midnight Hair implies it’s going to be a Chinese version of Candyman (1992), but that would require, you know, actual effort from the writer and director.

Were Midnight Hair to play to its mild giallo-lite strengths it might have been a whole lot more interesting. Since this is a Mainland China feature no such thing will be forthcoming. Had this been a straight-up whodunit or hyper-stylized murder mystery perhaps Midnight Hair could have been something. It would have certainly given Daniella Wang something to do. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it could have been a contemporary Amuck (1972), Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975), or The Killer Must Kill Again (1975) or even a lesser example of the form as The French Sex Murders (1972), Naked Girl Killed in the Park (1972), or The Sister Of Ursula (1978). The script from Tang Jia-Qi is certainly convoluted, labyrinthine and filled with enough familial dysfunction, kink, and mania to warrant comparison to the average giallo. Short on both suspense and pretty much bloodless Midnight Hair is closer to Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) than to any of the classic Asian ghost horror of yore. Like so many of these Mainland China ghost horror features it is competently made but barely tends to leave any impression at all. It’s competent and featureless, just like the ghosts that typically inhabit this strangely popular subgenre.