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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: 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.