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Plot: princess Aurora falls into a deep slumber. Can a warrior save the kingdom?

No doubt filmed in response to Casper van Dien’s Sleeping Beauty (2014) and shot on a budget that couldn’t possibly have extended beyond a few Twinkies, some Skittles, and whatever pocketchange was on hand among cast and crew; Rene Perez’ Sleeping Beauty elevates cosplaying, not of the advanced variety but rather the one on the wrong side of cheap, to an artform. The historical basis for Sleeping Beauty was the Brothers Grimm fairytale Little Briar Rose from 1812, which itself was a retelling of La Belle au bois dormant from Charles Perrault. That version of the story can be found in the Histories or Tales from Past Times, with Morals or Mother Goose Tales (Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités or Contes de ma mère l'Oye) collection from 1697. Perrault in turn based his writings upon the earlier Italian fairytale Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile as written in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. As with The Snow Queen (2013) before it his Sleeping Beauty also deviates quite a bit from the beloved fairytale from whence it came. Sleeping Beauty tries to overcompensate by having early Perez babes Jenny Allford, Gemma Donato, and Raven Lexy disrobe early and often. While it’s certainly superior to The Snow Queen (2013) that isn’t saying much at all.

In an arboreal kingdom princess Aurora (Jenny Allford) is en route to negiotiate a truce with evil witch Carbosse (Raven Lexy). A member of the Royal Guard (Haref Topete) tries to convince Aurora that she’s walking into a trap, but she presses on anyway. Having reached the witch’s castle she wanders the interiors for a while until she comes across an enchanted spindle. She’s drawn in, stings herself, and falls into a deep slumber. Once word gets back to the kingdom William (Robert Amstler), the brave Commander of the Guard, embarks on a perilous quest to vanquish Carbosse and awaken the princess. On his travel he saves displaced and desperate Elf seer Alondra (Gemma Donato, as Gemma Danoto) from an assault by a brute barbarian (Joseph Aviel). Alondra realizes that her magic is not strong enough and that they require the counsel and help of wise wizard Samrin (John J. Welsh, as John Welsh). Meanwhile Carbosse instructs her henchman Enkrail (David Reinprecht) to find a maiden (Heather Montanez) that looks like Aurora so she can lay a trap. As the fellowship travels across the kingdom they are beset by many dangers, and William faces off against the demonic Octulus (Robert S. Dixon). When they finally reach the witch’s castle, one final confrontation awaits. Will the magic of Alondra and Samrin, as well as William’s blade be enough to withstand the malefic Carbosse?

Sleeping Beauty dares answer the question that nobody asked: “what would Lord Of the Rings have been had it had bare tits?” Or what would Game Of Thrones (2011-2019) have looked like on a budget that couldn’t even cover Emilia Clarke’s wardrobe. It’s a painful example of what happens when you let ditzy California girls play Elfs, regal princesses, and evil sorceresses. There’s a point to be made that every girl wants to be a princess and Sleeping Beauty offers enough of a counterpoint that not every buxom blonde beach babe should given the keys to the kingdom. The cast consists of the usual stuntmen and models, and nobody can really act. There are different phases in Perez’ career, roughly divided into everything that came before Playing with Dolls (2015), and everything that came after. Little Red Riding Hood (2016) is an exception of sorts. While it features Alanna Forte in a non-speaking part, it looks as if it was shot before Playing with Dolls (2015), but only released after. It’s purely conjecture on our part, but Irina Levadneva is curiously absent. Levadneva was one of the early Perez muses, but she was never seen again once Rene started helming Playing with Dolls (2015), and its series of sequels, as were Gemma Donato, and Raven Lexy for that matter.

What little production value Sleeping Beauty has comes from location shooting at Castle Noz in San Joaquin Valley, and Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley. If anything, even this early Perez knew how to frame a scene, and there are some truly idyllic landscapes from Redwood National Park, San Joaquin Valley, and Shasta County to be seen. The blue demon that imprisons Aurora in the castle sort of looks like the Jem'Hadar shock troops of the Dominion from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999). As with The Snow Queen (2013) the year before Sleeping Beauty takes many liberties with the source material, and it never quite becomes the American fantastique it ought to have been. What it lacks in production value or good writing it makes up in ample amounts of exposed flesh with Allford, Donato, and Lexy each having extended nude scenes. The visual effects are somehow better than in the later Little Red Riding Hood (2016) and Sleeping Beauty is not nearly as prone to meandering atmospheric padding scenes that add nothing. Perez did better features before and after with both The Snow Queen (2013) and Sleeping Beauty being vastly superior to Little Red Riding Hood (2016). While we would have loved more Donato and Lexy in later features they, along with Irina Levadneva, were never seen again in the post-Playing with Dolls (2015) years.

Seeing Sleeping Beauty almost makes you wish Perez would do an American take on The Nude Vampire (1970), Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Black Magic Rites (1973), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), Seven Women For Satan (1976), or The Living Dead Girl (1982). In fact knowing Perez and his predilections he would be ideally suited to continue the cinematic legacy of Jean Rollin, Luigi Batzella, and Renato Polselli. If his later work is anything to go by he himself seems not interested in such a thing in the slightest. No, first and foremost Rene Perez is an action-oriented director who loves classic exploitation, something which Death Kiss (2018) and Cabal (2020) would amply evince years down the line, and atmospheric Eurocult inspired ditties aren’t his forté. He could probably lens a giallo if he ever found a decent writing partner and some high-end urban locations. Arrowstorm Entertainment does the entire indie fantasy thing way better than Perez ever could. As it stands Sleeping Beauty is one of the better early Perez features but it doesn’t and can’t hold a candle to the vastly superior and better realized Playing with Dolls (2015) and most that came after. Rene Perez has grown a lot in the year since and Sleeping Beauty is an example of his earlier rougher, more unrefined style.

Plot: in a barbaric world one warrior must fulfill an ancient prophecy.

There are but two demographics who were really receptive to embracing the practice of DIY filmmaking, stunt actors and horror/science fiction enthusiasts. That not everybody can be a Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, or Tsui Hark was a given – but it seems more than a little unjust that stuntwoman/devil-do-all Cecily Fay is left in micro-budget hell whenever she isn’t working anonymously on Hollywood blockbusters. A woman with her skill set should be employed as an action director, fight choreographer, and weapons expert on productions with budgets that she’ll never command. It’s nigh on unbelievable that a woman like this wasn’t hired by Stallone for his The Expendables series or whenever America attempts another martial arts romp. Certainly indie directors like Rene Perez, Neil Johnson, and Benjamin Combes would know what to do with somebody her. Imagine what fireworks could be generated when Fay was partnered with somebody like Danielle C. Ryan, Antony Centurini, or Tara Macken. Warrioress provides ample evidence why such a partnership needs to happen. If this is what Cecily can do on her own, imagine her bundling her considerable forces with someone with actual clout.

Warrioress is a throwback to the barbarian movies - particularly the ones produced by Roger Corman in Argentina from the early-to-mid 1980s - following the break-away success of Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982). Like its Argentinian forebears Warrioress too feels like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, or Christophe Young painting brought to life. Albeit that it just as often looks as LARPing caught on home video. Just like Geisha Assassin (2008) and Ninja Apocalypse (2014) before it Warrioress has the thinnest veneer of a story as a preamble to have as many action sequences (brawls, confrontations, and duels – with and without weapons) as humanly possible. It’s primary concern is not one of world-building, the plot is at no point significant (or all that important), and it consists of just about every barbarian, steampunk, and post-nuke archetype under the sun. Before anything else, Warrioress is a showcase for Fay and her Babes With Blades collective and a demo reel extended into a 90-minute feature presentation. It’s one of those unfortunate instances where the digital box art is better than the film itself.

And who’s the creative force behind Warrioress? Cecily Fay. Fay is a British stuntwoman who has worked on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) as well as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016), and Outlaw King (2018). This pint-sized powerhouse is a martial artist, choreographer, weapons expert, and a lifelong practitioner of tai chi and the Indonesian martial arts of pencak silat. With a resumé like that you’d expect at least some of her Hollywood friends to lend a hand. No such thing is the case. Warrioress is DIY from conception to execution. In practical terms that means that Fay was involved in every aspect of its creation with exception of directing. She may not stand… well, tall or anything at 4’9″ (1.45m), but Cecily is a force of nature otherwise. A British Michelle Yeoh, or Angela Mao Ying, if you will. Warrioress is the debut feature of both herself as a performer and the Babes with Blades Theater Group that she runs and something of a collaborative effort between herself and director Ross Boyask.

Once every generation the Danan Sidhe hold a tournament to choose their ultimate warrior. For long they have held a prophecy that a Chosen One would fight the northern tribes of the Ragganwold and unite the hordes. She would wield the Twin Sister Swords and crush the Falonex oppressor. The shamaness (Loveday Holly) believes that Boudiccu (Cecily Fay) is the prophesied Chosen One. When she wins the local tournament she’s send on a perilous quest by village sage Valexia (Penni Tovey). Believing her lover Finvarrah (Christian Howard) to be slain during a raid only enrages Boudiccu further beckoning her on her journey to the mythical Tombs of the Ancestors. Meanwhile the Emperor (Will Brenton) of the Falonex industrial empire has sent champion Djahn (Helen Steinway Bailey) to eliminate Boudiccu. Along the way she forges an alliance with Ragganwold warrioress White Arrow (Joelle Simpson). The two liberate White Arrow’s sister Silver Rain (Jennie Flader) and some of her kin from imprisonment. It’s then that Boudiccu realizes that the legends, the Prophecy, and the traditions of her people were just fables to maintain inter-tribal disputes. Her adversary in the battle of Prophecy is not some Falonex agent, but her ally White Arrow. After defeating White Arrow it dawns upon Boudiccu that the only way to keep the encroaching oppressor at bay is by joining the Ragganwold. As the two tribes unite under one banner, the Falonex mount an invasion to consolidate their regime…

Since the story isn’t all that important it’s no wonder that Warrioress has the look of a Renaissance Fair industrial film with a slight Celtic/steampunk/post-nuke bend. Seeing how Fay was clearly inspired by Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) the plot is a seemingly random combination of elements from Amazons (1986), The Sisterhood (1988), and Amazon Warrior (1998) and a twist straight out of Planet of the Apes (1968). The cinematography ranges somewhere between shaky home video and the better no-budget feature (along the lines of Alex Chandon and Nigel Wingrove) to the occassional semi-professional mise en scène (the early work of Rene Perez comes to mind) and the rare artsy shot reminiscent of something from the Arrowstorm catalogue. Overall, though, this remains squarely in the micro-budget/shot-on-video realm of amateur filmmaking. As impressive as the action direction, martial arts – and weapon choreography might be, everything surrounding it leaves a lot to be desired. From the hokey score, and the barely there continuity to the skimpy, highly impractical metallic cheerleader outfit that Cecily herself wears – Warrioress is the much overdue revival of Barbarian Queen (1985), and thus is trash of the highest order.

The reason to see Warrioress are, of course, the main women themselves: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson, and Helen Steinway Bailey. Fay (for obvious reasons) gets the most screentime and she’s involved in every action scene. The sheer amount of variety in weapons, number of participants, styles, and locations greatly add to the authenticity. Warrioress breathes Hong Kong with its fast-moving, acrobatic, and frequently gravity-defying stuntwork. Fights will often change while they happen. A brawl might split up into individual confrontations, duels that start as hand-to-hand altercations will change gears when weapons are introduced, and the weapons themselves range from swords, spears, to bows and axes and other sharp-edged utensils. The incredibly scenic locales all were publicly available spaces in and around Guernsey. Warrioress was shot in an combined 18 months over a marathon three-year period. It might not have the sheer inventiveness of, say, We're Going to Eat You (1980) or Bad Taste (1987) – but it is never for a lack of trying. It might not exactly look or sound spectacular, but at least Warrioress has ambition beyond being a thinly-veiled demonstration video.

Although principal photography started in 2011 it wouldn’t wrap until three years later. Mostly because photography was arranged around everybody’s availability and Simpson becoming pregnant twice. Warrioress spent the following year in post-production and the by time it would finally see release Helen Steinway Bailey had become one of the most in-demand stunt performers in the world, the British Tara Macken or Zoë Bell, if you will. In that capacity she has doubled for Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain, Felicity Jones, and Nasim Predat in big budget event movies as Marvel Comics’ Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), Rogue One (2016), Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), and even the maligned Aladdin (2019). By the time Warrioress was finally released Fay was several years deep into pre-production and writing on her second feature. Ultimately Warrioress was a victim of unfortunate circumstance with characters, plotlines, and such being cut for any number of logistical or practical reasons. It was destined never to unlock its full potential, but Fay's second feature would. And with that feature she would maintain full creative control and man every department herself. Warrioress might not appeal to everybody, but Cecily Fay is definitely a woman on the rise.