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Plot: mercenary happens upon conspiracy while tracking mass murderer.

Rene Perez describes Cabal as a tribute to “80s exploitation” which is just about the biggest oxymoron if there ever was one. At the dawn of the 80s the grindhouses on 42nd street were on the verge of extinction as the burdgeoning home video market swept in as a cleansing fire and the new alternative for low budget thrills. Semantics aside, Perez directed, edited, photographed, scored, and co-wrote Cabal with frequent collaborator Barry Massoni, and it’s one of his best this side of Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018). Eva Hamilton once again showcases that she’s the best Perez babe since Nicole Stark, Karin Brauns, Irina Levadneva, and Alanna Forte. Cabal is very much Cry Havoc (2019) with a late seventies/early eighties exploitation aesthetic. Death Kiss (2018) was an obvious tribute to Death Wish (1974). Cabal seems to be a tribute to the backwood horror and cheapo action features that were popular in the early eighties.

To say that Rene Perez has come a long way since The Snow Queen (2013) would be putting it mildly. In the last couple of years Perez has gotten far more dynamic and mobile in the way he shoots and lines up his scenes. His static scenic shots now only are part of a much wider palette and his keen eye for beautiful landscapes hasn’t dulled. When conceptualizing Cabal he probably looked towards bonafide American classics as Bloodeaters (1980), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), I Drink Your Blood (1970), and Raw Force (1982). As for the government conspiracy angle Coma (1978), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), or Eyes Behind the Stars (1978) are likely inspirations. Honestly, as much as we can get behind Cabal on mere principle as it obviously has it heart in the right place, it just so happens to be confused about what exactly it wants to be. Cabal is four movies mangled into one – it isn’t Commando Ninja (2018) or anything.

One day military contractor Dragonfly (John Ozuna) makes his acquaintance with Elizabeth (Eva Hamilton) in a local wateringhole. Elizabeth has been investigating the disappearance of a number of nubile women in the California Redwood forests. She believes that the women are brought there by a band of human traffickers who harvest their organs for interested third-parties. To get to said organs and body parts they let the women loose in the woodlands where Sallos (Tony Jackson) dwells. Sallos is a deranged homicidal maniac sporting a mask and a barbwired axe with a known affinity for bodily dismemberment and his quick, brutal methods of execution. After negotiating terms of the contract Dragonfly sets out to find Sallos and any survivors.

It doesn’t take long before Dragonfly is able to locate Sallos. When he finds remains of other girls that went missing he happens upon a massive conspiracy involving the local elite with ties going to the highest echelons of government, the corporate world, and mass media. It seems that Dr. Bieger (Joseph Camilleri), his media magnate girlfriend Kathleen (Linda Bott), their mutual associate and head of operations Sloan (Keely Dervin) and corporate strongwoman Thea (Alexandra Fabbri, as Alex Fabbri) are part of a organ harvest ring with the help of Dr. Kelly (Denise Poole) at the local hospital. Their goal is obtain eternal youth and vitality which will allow them to further strengthen and consolidate their political – and economical influence to bend the powers that be to their will. Now the cabal has set their eye on a waitress (Candace Cannon) and aspiring model Priss (Rebecca Tarabocchia). Things take a turn for the personal when Elizabeth is ambushed by para-military forces and finds herself at the mercy of Sallos.

Whereas Death Kiss (2018) was blatant and obvious in what it imitated Cabal is far less so. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Cabal is supposed to pay homage to outside of “80s exploitation” - and that’s enough of a blanket term to be practically meaningless. With Cabal Rene has thrown together a bunch of different popular 80s fads without bothering too much, or at all, whether they mesh together, or not. First and foremost, Cabal is an action movie – complete with explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and bloodspatters. Second, it’s a backwood horror about a deranged masked killer stalking, hacking, and killing a bunch of pretty girls in a scenic woodland locale. Third, it’s a police thriller wherein a military contractor is hired by a private individual to track down a bunch of missing persons. Fourth, and finally, it’s conspiracy thriller about the wealthy and politically connected elite operating a clandestine organ harvest ring out of a hospital to attain the closest thing to immortality. Most of the time, however, Cabal feels like Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018) stitched together.

The new blood is, admittedly, a mixed bag. Tony Jackson replaces J.D. Angstadt as the prerequisite mute serial killer. Jackson’s performance is minimalist and brute, near identical to Angstadt in that regard. Angstadt, of course, modeled his role after Charlie Glackin. John Ozuna will make you pine for Robert Kovacs, David Reinprecht, and Robert Amstler. The girls? Well, there’s not really a whole to say about them. Rebecca Tarabocchia, Clementine Hetherington, and Kimberly Molina all do what girls like this in Perez features always do: they smile, take their top off, wimper, and die. Neither of them leaves much of an impression the way Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, Raven Lexy, Stormi Maya, or Elonda Seawood did. Melody Vaughan plays the kind of maternal, protective role that Malorie Glavan usually does. Only Denise Poole and Candace Cannon manage to do something with what little they are given. As for the oldtimers: Linda Bott, and Joseph Camilleri will make you wish Marilyn Robrahn, Richard Tyson or John J. Welsh were still around. Bott and Camilleri would feel right at home in the next Neil Breen spectacular. Illuminating every scene she’s in (and acting better than the majority of the cast, combined) is Eva Hamilton. Miss Hamilton is just about the best thing in Cabal.

For reasons inexplicable Perez has chosen a very desaturated color scheme. The lush vibrant colors of, say, Sleeping Beauty (2014) are conspicuous only by their absence. Sallos is pretty much a nonentity compared to Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and instead of a full-blown The Last House on the Left (1972) madmen-on-the-loose flick Cabal is, for the most part, a fairly conventional action movie with some horror dressings. Cabal would probably have benefitted from cutting Sallos altogether as the Neil Breen-like conspiracy is far more interesting than a bunch of scantily clad babes escaping from another axe-wielding masked maniac. Sallos can in no shape or form compete with Rene’s greatest creation Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and Cabal attests to that. Sallos has no real reason being in Cabal other then to provide a few gory kills, and he has no other function besides that.

The kidnapping and stalking could just as easy been done by the military personnel and there would be no notable narrative difference. The trailer is misleading in that it banks on the presence of Sallos so much. He’s just a peon. Here’s an idea for the next Playing with Dolls episode: an apocalyptic duel between Havoc and Sallos in the California Redwoods devised by The Watcher, with a bunch of pretty people acting as either cannon fodder or live bait. The score is a stroll down to memory lane with lots of ambient synths and piano. For that grimy grindhouse feel the digital film stock is artificially aged through the use of lines, grains, and speckles of dirt. It feels awfully 70s for an 80s throwback. The action direction and fight choreography from John Ozuna is sort of functional but one-dimensional – and has nothing on Hong Kong. Perhaps Perez should keep Ozuna as a consultant and employ Antony Cinturino, Danielle C. Ryan, or Cecily Fay.

Now that Rene is on an 80s revivalist binge let us pitch another idea. How about that long overdue LETHAL Ladies imitation we all know he has been pining to make? He could call it B.U.S.T. (or Branch of Unity, Strategy & Tactics. We have given this some thought, you see) and have the most beloved Perez babes face off against his usual array of stuntmen and bodybuilders. If anything over the years Rene has made some stellar casting choices that wouldn’t feel out of place in a vintage Andy Sidaris spycaper. Imagine what Perez could do with a stretch of beach, palm trees, a warm color palette and a female ensemble cast in pastel-colored bikinis wielding oversized guns and candy-colored cocktails. Who wouldn’t want to see Eva Hamilton, Spring Inés Peña, Omnia Bixler, Alanna Forte (or Elonda Seawood), Karin Brauns (or Wilma Elles), and Aurelia Scheppers (or Irina Levadneva) duke it out in an explosive battle against crimelord Richard Tyson, or Daniel Baldwin and their bevy of gun-wielding beautiful henchettes? What better opportunity than to have Stormi Maya, Raven Lexy, and Gemma Donato cameo? It would the ideal excuse to hire Breen babes Jennifer Autry, or Victoria Viveiros, low budget starlets like Schuylar Craig, Lisa Palenica, Alejandra Morin, Ginny You, and Tracey Birdsall or genuine talent like Cristine Reyes, Nicole Bilderback, Samantha Robinson or Nicola Posener. Andy made 12 of these things, and Rene (so far) has none. How’s that possible? We’d even help brainstorm a storyline outline with possible setpieces and locations, if that’s what it takes to get the ball rolling.

For most of its duration Cabal feels like a repurposed Playing with Dolls script. Over the years Rene has abundantly proven that he knows how to shoot an exciting action scene on a low budget. Death Kiss (2018) evinced that better than anything. Cabal might not be the next big Perez caper but it has its heart in the right place. The thing is that Cabal has a bit too much going on at any point and it lacks the focus of Death Kiss (2018). This would have worked wonders as a madmen-on-the-loose horror flick in tradition of The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or as a martial arts action movie in vein of Raw Force (1982). That Cabal starts out as an action movie only to turn into a backwood horror, and then to contort itself into a conspiracy thriller is what ultimately works to its detriment. It never settles on a specific tone nor direction. It’s everything at once, and none of the above. And that’s a shame. Especially when you have somebody as versatile Eva Hamilton at your disposal. Cabal does everything we have come to expect of a Perez feature – and while it may not surpass them, we can’t shake the impression that this could have been so much more. The trailer certainly looked promising. Perhaps a second go at Cabal might birth what this always should have been.

Plot: tough cop investigates the disappearance of her reporter sister.

Cirio H. Santiago was a visionary. He produced 82 movies in 50 years, and directed a good hundred himself up to his passing in 2008. Santiago was the man behind the first color horror feature in the Philippines with The Blood Drinkers (1964) (with Amalia Fuentes) and the inventor of the topless kickboxing movie. First he had Playboy Playmate of the Month (October, 1969) Jean Bell in the blaxploitation martial arts sub-classic TNT Jackson (1964). At the dawn of the eighties he reimagined his classic in the form of the self-proclaimed “erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist (1981) with Jillian Kessner. Proving both that bigger isn't necessarily better and that third time isn't always the charm, the Roger Corman produced Angelfist has lousy dialog, stilted fights that make Albert Pyun look exciting, and one of the worst cases of miscasting that no amount of skin can possibly save...

The nominal star of Angelfist is Catya Sassoon, the daughter of shampoo magnate and hair stylist Vidal and sister of director Oley Sassoon and who bad movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs once poetically described as, “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist. . Cat was a model that lived fast and died young, and somehow parlayed her '80s sass into an acting career, or what should pass for it. Angelfist was her big break and Cat threw herself into the role with zest. Allegedly Sassoon studied tae kwon do and arnis de mano in preparation, and if her acting was nothing to particularly write home about - her martial arts would make up for it. Santiago had a habit of fabricating titles and Sassoon supposedly was the "World Karate Association North American Champion" (never mind that neither of his two former stars had any formal martial arts training either). By 1991, at age 21, Cat was addicted to drugs and alcohol and a regular at detox clinics. A year later Cat attended the 1992 Cannes Film Festival to promote Angelfist. Less than ten years later Cat died of a drug-induced heart-attack in late 2001.

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Kristie Lang (Sibel Birzag) is a photo journalist who clandestinely captures a political assassination on film in Manila. When she tries to hand over evidence to the official channels she's brick walled at American Embassy who not only are lost in never-ending bureaucracy but also have to deal with the more pressing matter of constant protests against more US military bases in the Philippines. Distraught she hands over the incriminating evidence to Sulu (Sheila Lintan), an exotic dancer at a gentlemen’s club. For this transgression Lang is murdered by the Black Brigades terrorist cell. Back in the good ol' US of A tough-as-nails cop Katara ‘Kat’ D. Lang (K.D. Lang? Really?) (Catya Sassoon) catches wind of the circumstances surrounding her sister’s passing books the next flight to Manila. Told by Bayani (Roland Dantes), Kirstie’s erstwhile trainer, that “vengeance is not an acceptable motive for entering the kumite!” she bests the man in arnis de mano impressing corrupt event promoter Mr. Carrion (Tony Carreon). Suddenly Kat is allowed to partake in the Kubate.

The only caveat is that Carrion insists that she proves her worth in a qualifying match. In the audience of said match is Nordic blonde Lorda (Melissa Moore) and the closest thing to an ally that Kat will have next to conman Alcatraz (Michael Shaner) who has all the underworld connections but whose alliances and motives are sketchy at best. The Black Brigade, a cell of revolutionary insurgents seeking to destabilize political relations between the Philippines and the US, see Kat as their latest threat. Their leader Cirio Quirino (Henry Strzalkowski) dispatches highly organized, disciplined and patient assassin with an affinity for classic arts Bontoc or Gold Tooth (Christina Portugal) to neutralize the problem. In an incredibly groan-inducing explosive finale killer Kat thwarts an assassination attempt on ambassador Franklin (Ken Metcalfe), rescues her proxy girlfriend Lorda from the Black Brigades, and manages to bring her sister's murderer to justice.

For those who thought Bloodmatch (1991) and Heatseeker (1995) were as interesting as watching paint dry, old Cirio offers ample evidence that boobs alone not a good movie make. There's hardly any complaints on that end as neither Santiago nor Angelfist waste any time in getting to that what everybody's here for. And that's where the horrible case of miscasting comes in. Melissa Moore (sometime Playboy Playmate in 1991) was, by far, the better actress. In a just world this would have been a Moore starring vehicle with Sassoon in a supporting role. Moore was the star of the Jim Wynorski boobfest Hard to Die (1990), and the insane Samurai Cop (1991). The late Cat Sassoon was horribly, tragically miscast here and while Angelfist exceeds Naked Fist (1981) both in terms of violence and nudity it never becomes more than a sum of its parts. It's one of those instances where you actively wish the lead would keep her top on for once. It almost makes you wonder why Sassoon’s plastic pair didn't get their own credit.

This has more leotards than Nightmare City (1980) and just about looks what a martial arts movie by Zalman King or Andy Sidaris would look like. If Lorda's pick-up line (“you ever had a blonde?”) rings familiar that because Andy Sidaris used it earlier and better. Angelfist is Bloodsport (1988) or Kickboxer (1989) with boobs but without talent. No wonder that Heatseeker (1995) ended up stealing some of its best scenes from this. Angelfist etches dangerously close to late night cable soft erotica with its abundance of communal shower scenes. There's obvious chemistry and mutual attraction between the Kat and Lorda characters but it never results in extensive mutual groping nor is there an equivalent of the warehouse scene from Naked Fist (1981). In retrospect Cirio H. Santiago's Naked trilogy more or less is a parallel franchise to Wong's Naked series. While Santiago's is more transparently exploitative for all the obvious reasons the law of diminishing returns struck hard and swift in both.

And this really brings us to the crux of this review: why was the world forever denied a standalone spinoff with Melissa Moore's Lorda as the central character? Even Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching was given her own (albeit cheaper) sub-franchise with Raped By an Angel (1993-1999) after the runaway success of Naked Killer (1992). Santiago specialized in everything from exploding bamboo-hut Vietnam yarns, to post-nuke Mad Max (1979) rip-offs, and topless kickboxing features. Above all, though, Cirio was the master of the female-centric action romp. His shadow looms long over the Filipino movie industry, and in recent memory only Maria (2019) has come close to recapturing that what Santiago once made an industry out of. Like The Expendables (1988) at the end of the prior decade Angelfist might not have been old Cirio's finest hour but for every dud there's a Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Silk (1986), or The Sisterhood (1988). Santiago never bet on one horse, and with Angelfist he clearly missed the race...