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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: can a maiden fair save the realm from the evil Snow Queen?

The early years and filmography of California indie director Rene Perez offers a wide array of features across a number of genres. Most notably among them the zombie horror franchise The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) and the western / Predator (1987) crossover Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013). Unique to these early years are Perez’ European fairytale adaptations which typically play fast and loose with their source material. On the plus side many of these adaptations star early Perez muses Irina Levadneva, Nadia Lanfranconi, and Jenny Allford. In that sense it’s emblemic of the other two that would follow. The Snow Queen has little to nothing to do with the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairytale upon which it is allegedly based, and largely exists as preamble to get Irina Levadneva, Aurelia Scheppers, and Jenny Allford out of their clothes. It even has the gall to insert a completely unnecessary and alien para-military subplot that comes across as a technical exercise for some of his later productions. Sleeping Beauty (2014) and Little Red Riding Hood (2016) both introduced foreign elements into their main plots, but at least they bore some vague semblance to the classic European fairytales which ostensibly served as their conceptual basis.

That The Snow Queen would bear almost no resemblance to the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a given. Only the Gerda, and Kai characters, and both the Troll and The Snow Queen are accounted for, both none of the plot remotely resembles the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. At heart The Snow Queen apparently wants to be a fantastique, a genre practiced primarily in France and Spain in the nineteen-seventies. As with many an early Perez feature The Snow Queen too is a victim of padding and is filled to the gill with atmospheric scenic shots that do nothing to forward the story. Sleeping Beauty (2014) suffered from much of the same defects, thankfully Rene would have remedied this tendency by the time he lensed the original Playing with Dolls (2015) and its many sequels. Just when you think that Perez is going to get to the meat of the story a completely unnecessary and alien para-military subplot, that feels not only wildly out of place, but should have been its own feature altogether, is introduced. The Snow Queen comes across as a barely concealed test-run for Playing with Dolls (2015) and like The Obsidian Curse (2016) a few years down the line feels more like a technical exercise than a movie. The fantasy mainplot hardly aspires to anything more than advanced cosplaying and never attains Arrowstorm Entertainment level of professionalism.

A distant kingdom has been plunged into eternal winter by a curse from the Snow Queen (Nadia Lanfranconi). The only thing that can stop the Snow Queen is a magic mirror. Wandering the snowbound forest fair maiden Gerda (Irina Levadneva, as Iren Levy) is happy when her man Kai (Robert Amstler) returns from the Crusades. The Snow Queen has dispatched a troll to capture whoever possesses the magic mirror. That just so happens to be Kai, and he’s imprisoned by one of the Snow Queen’s spells. In the village a cleric brother Liolinus (John J. Welsh) posits only innocent and pure Gerda can withstand the Snow Queen, and sends her on a perilous quest. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, the US Army has ordered Colonel Richard Wagner (David Reinprecht) to locate and retrieve an expensive prototype of body armor, and the culprit responsible for the theft. To that end he has tracked down deserter Valtranz (Robert S. Dixon) to a remote snowbound forest. In that same forest a trio of scientists – Walter (Ian Dalziel), Annika Hansen (Aurelia Scheppers), and Nichelle (Jenny Allford) – are conducting investigations into inexplicable energy surges in the area. What all three parties will come to realize is that they’re all drawn to the nefarious Snow Queen.

Aurelia Scheppers actually had a career prior to working Perez. She appeared in music videos from P!nk (‘Fuckin’ Perfect’) and Lifehouse (‘Halfway Gone’), and had guest roles in series as Lie to Me (2009), Bones (2009), The Young and the Restless (2012), and Switched at Birth (2014). Her highest-profile guest roles have been in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2015), GLOW (2017), and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2017). The same goes for Robert Amstler, and Raven Lexy. Amstler once played bit parts in A-list movies as Flightplan (2005) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), but now seems lost in low budget hell. Lexy from her side had bit parts in Entourage (2000), and Numb3rs (2008) and even starred alongside Jason Statham in Crank: High Voltage (2009). Like her colleague Irina Levadneva, Lexy appeared in only three Rene Perez features. The year before she was in Demon Hunter (2012), and the year after in The Dead the Damned and the Darkness (2014), which also featured Levadneva. Irina would make her final Perez appearance in his Little Red Riding Hood (2016).

Jenny Allford’s sole claim to fame is an uncredited part as one of the party chicks in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012). From there she descended straight into the low budget hell known as TomCat Films. In that capacity she appeared in Captain Battle: Legacy War (2013), and Lizzie Borden's Revenge (2013). On both occassions she shared the screen with Marlene Mc'Cohen. In case of the latter that also meant that former porn star Veronica Ricci was on hand. You know that there’s trouble ahead when the porn star acts better than the alleged actresses, and the poster art is better than the movie. Not that that always is the case, mind, Ricci was pretty fucken abysmal in Mc'Cohen’s mockbuster Interstellar Wars (2016). Whether Allford’s lot has improved is entirely up for debate, but TomCat Films is a fate so awful that you wish it upon nobody. Well, it’s a step above Neil Breen, but we’re not sure how much that’s saying exactly.

As would sadly become obvious in the following years simple economics forced director Rene Perez to take quite a few liberties with the material he was adapting. All of which would be perfectly alright if actually served the story at hand. It doesn’t here. The Snow Queen desperately wants to be a fantastique, or the closest proxy to that. It isn’t. At best this could have been a loose remake of, say, Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971), Nude For Satan (1973), Seven Women For Satan (1973), Vampyres (1975), or even Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) more than anything else. Most of the times it looks like an early Nightwish or Immortal music video, to be entirely frank.

Not that we begrudge Perez for attempting to do these adaptations when he has access to those scenic California woodlands, as well as Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, and Castle Noz in San Joaquin Valley. It only speaks of ambition to attempt such a thing on the limited budgets he works on. Why attempt adapting a fairytale when a gothic horror throwback (with a gratuitous dose of blood and boobs) would have sufficed, or worked even better? Rene obviously has access to the locations, the babes, and the props/special effects to undertake such a venture. There’s no question that Rene can do much with what is obviously very little, but The Snow Queen is not that movie. Perez can, and would, do better in the years to come.