Skip to content

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: dating in the modern world isn’t what it used to be.

In his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions Of A B-Movie Actor genre stalwart Bruce Campbell talks a great deal about what he refers to as Hollywood’s working stiffs, or blue-collar actors who just try to remain employed, those who play bits parts and supporting roles on the big and the small screens; and the chosen, lucky few who need a paycheck in between big Hollywood blockbusters. Julia X features examples of all three, and is a grueling example of what happens to television actors, and second-tier Hollywood actors not marketable enough to carry their own features. Kevin Sorbo is no stranger to the low budget circuit ever since the end of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) and even someone as famous as Ving Rhames needs to put food on the table in between Mission: Impossible sequels. Julia X is a cautionary tale of what actors have to suffer through to remain employed in between prestigious A-list projects.

The creative force behind Julia X is one Philip J. Pettiette. Pettiette started out as a dailies courier on House Of Games (1987) and from there worked his way up to production assistant. In that capacity he was involved with the Babe Ruth biopic The Babe (1992), and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). He then acted as production manager on the Shannon Tweed erotic thriller Night Fire (1994) and as co-executive producer on John Boorman’s The General (1998). Pettiette’s first foray into horror came with the all but forgotten Jennifer’s Shadow (2004) (which he also wrote) and that pretty much laid the necessary groundwork for his own directorial feature. Julia X was written by Matt Cunningham - a special effects artisan and sometime television documentary producer who directed a few cheap splatter movies that nobody remembers – who worked on Starship Troopers (1997) and most recently The Predator (2018). Overseeing the special effects is actor/stuntman Scott Roland with Steve Krieger and cinematographer Andrew Newton. All of which is well and good, except… what? Who has an actor/stuntman and cinematographer doing special effects, and a special effects technician writing? Also involved is Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka, he of Silent Hill (1999-2014) and Lollipop Chainsaw (2012) fame and sometime creative for CD Project RED.

Julia (Valerie Azlynn) is on a date with a man (Kevin Sorbo) she met on the Internet. Everything seems to be going well, and she even starts having flights of fancy about the possibilities. For no apparent reason Julia excuses herself, places a call, and makes haste to leave the bar. His advances spurned the man follows Julia out into an underground parking garage, sedates her, and takes her to his hideout. En route to his hideout the man disposes of a prior victim (Kasi Scarbrough Corley) before continuing the drive. Once at the hideout he ties Julia up, burns an X on her thigh, and then kills time by listening to ‘Close to You’ from The Carpenters on his mp3 player. In an unguarded moment Julia manages to escape, and via an extended detour through out some nearby woodlands, enters a dwelling. In the woods the man finds a decaying residence. There he’s knocked unconscious by Julia, and moments later another vehicle pulls up.

The other vehicle disgorges a blonde woman by the name of Jessica (Alicia Leigh Willis, as Alicia Willis), and together with Julia she throws the comatose man in the trunk before speeding off. The two take their prisoner to their remote dwelling in the middle of nowhere where Julia inflicts an extended battery of torture upon her victim. Julia and Jessica were the product of a broken home and victims of domestic abuse, and now that they’ve come of age they prey upon and kill men that engage in the same predatory behavior as their father. However, all is not well with the girls and interpersonal tensions are mounting. Jessica just about had it with the inter-sibling dynamic as it currently exists. Julia’s dominant, high-maintenance personality is getting on her nerves, and Jessica’s tired of constantly being infantilized and belittled. All Jessica wants is some freedom, and space to be her own woman. Things come to a violent head when Jessica seduces and abducts unwitting mechanic Sam (Joel David Moore, as Joel Moore). In the ensuing fracas victims fall on both sides with Jessica coming out on top in the sibling conflict. Jessica takes up Julia’s mantle, and almost immediately takes to seducing, and killing, a man (Ving Rhames) at a local diner. Julia X now has become Jessica Y, it seems.

A cursory glance across the credits reveal no big name-stars. Ving Rhames is the only real star, and he was merely doing a cameo. That leaves television regulars Joel David Moore, and Kevin Sorbo to carry the brunt of the feature. In 2012 Ving Rhames was a long way from Mission: Impossible (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jacob's Ladder (1990), and Casualties Of War (1989). But let's not forgot that this was a particular dark year for him as he could be seen in Piranha 3DD (2012), Soldiers of Fortune (2012), and 7 Below (2012). In retrospect it makes his turn in Con Air (1997) look good relative to what other tripe he has starred in the years since. Valerie Azlynn and Alicia Leigh Willis are veterans of American television and both amassed a respectable amount of smaller roles in big budget Hollywood productions. Joel David Moore is another television regular and has starred in the ‘Youth Of the Nation’ from P.O.D. and ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ from Katy Perry music videos. More recently he was in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and is scheduled to return in the planned four sequels. For all the praise collectively heaped upon Cameron he used to work faster on smaller budgets.

For the least bit perceptive the big “twist” (if it can be called that) is so telegraphed and obvious, especially in light of the poster art, that a person must be blind to not see it coming from a mile away. And that exactly is where Julia X falters most damningly. Once the obvious twist is revealed the entire thing only gets by on what damage it’s willing to inflict on its main characters. As it turns out, that’s quite a bit – and it’s just about the last place where you expect god-fearing crusader Kevin Sorbo to turn up. It might not possess the elegance of Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) the way Julia X twists from a romantic drama into a house-full-of-crazies flick, but those curious what a horror take on Bonnie’s Kids (1972) would look like could do worse. Julia X has its heart in the right place and liberally borrows scenes and plot elements from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Maniac (1980), Deranged (1974), Day Of the Woman (1978), Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986), and The Last House On the Left (1972). At best Julia X looks and sounds semi-professional with enthusiasm to spare and at worst it looks somewhere between post-2001 Alex Chandon and post-2012 Rene Perez. Which means there’s blood by the buckets, and has all the hallmarks of a captivity-and-torment romp. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

As of this writing, in 2021, Julia X remains Philip J. Pettiette’s lone solo effort. In the decade since Pettiette has done nothing else, and it’s safe to assume to won’t be returning to directing anytime soon. Has economic anxiety suffocated a potential new talent? Maybe, but not necessarily. While not exactly overflowing with much in the way of individual style or visual flair the least that can be said about Julia X is that it is solid from a technical standpoint. Only a few isolated shots here and there betray that this was a DIY project and the writing is a lot better than it has any reason to be. As much as this is a throwback to the grindhouse terror films of the 1970s there seems to be a concerted effort from all involved to not be exploitative with its two leading ladies. Perhaps it would be a bit much to label this feminist horror. To call the “twist” something new would be intellectually dishonest as female-centric revenge horror is an old staple of the genre. Day Of the Woman (1978), and Ms .45 (1981) are just two of the more enduring examples. Rape Me (2000) was a decade-plus old by that point. Nevertheless it’s good seeing the ladies dishing out the punishment. When it comes right down to it Julia X is a beacon of light in the cesspit that is contemporary horror. A good way to kill 90 minutes.