Skip to content

Plot: vacationers run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

It’s been a strange and confusing journey going from the barely there slashing of Playing with Dolls (2015) to the functional competence of Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016) only to arrive at the utterly minimalist and brutally utilitarian Playing with Dolls: Havoc. Rene Perez is a director with authorial intentions, dangerous enthusiasm, but rarely the means to realize his visions. Since debuting in 2010 Perez has become something of a successor to Albert Pyun as he churns out several micro budget epics every year. Along with The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) his Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise has proven resilient despite its rampant banality and overall redundancy. None of the installments are particularly strong by any metric one chooses to employ and it’s anybody’s guess why Rene chose this to expand upon. After Playing with Dolls: Havoc the ongoing franchise was duly rebranded to the much shorter Havoc with the next sequel simply dubbed Cry Havoc (2019) arriving a scant two years later.

Under any of the usual circumstances the slasher is the easiest of horror subgenres to produce and direct. In its most typical and standardized form there’s little that can go wrong, although that occasionally does happen as Dutch-Belgian slasher Intensive Care (1991) went on to prove so historically and catastrophically. Rene Perez always stacks his movies with beautiful women and compared to the surrounding entries the women in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) are not as pneumatically-enhanced as they usually are. Nicole Stark, Wilma Elles, and Malorie Glavan (a poor man’s Melissa McCarthy) all are normally proportioned and Glavan is the rare plus size actress in Perez stock company. A nice change of pace, all things considered. This movie’s prerequisite ditzy blonde is Playboy Croatia and Venezuela Playmate (October, 2015) and Penthouse Pet of the Month (March, 2022) Stormi Maya (not sporting her usual aphro puff) who – in tradition of Alanna Forte and Elonda Seawood before her – gets to show off her impressive fake ass titties. Like Russ Meyer, Pete Walker, Andy Sidaris, and Jim Wynorski before him Rene Perez loves large breasted women, especially if they are platinum blondes. Any day now we’re expecting Rene to helm that long awaited LETHAL Ladies derivate (one we’d very much would like to see) with roles for Forte, Seawood, Maya, and other assorted bosomy Perez babes.

Platinum blonde Annabelle (Stormi Maya) follows clues and is rewarded with stacks of money until she reaches her destination point. There she’s attacked by known mass murderer Prisoner AYO-886 (J.D. Angstadt) who the Echo para-military unit securing the caves simply refer to as Havoc. As Havoc breaks free from his chains and escapes into the densely forested region that the caves are in the soldiers embark on a perilous quest to contain the situation to the best of their ability. Much of which will prove fatal. Meanwhile married couple Sara Curry (Nicole Stark) and her husband Timothy (Kyle Clarke) have retreated back to the country to spent a romantic weekend at their remote luxury cabin. Coming along are maintenance man Bob (John Scuderi) and housekeeper Alicia (Malorie Glavan). In another part of town Mia (Wilma Elles, as Jade Ellis) is experiencing car trouble and soon finds the vehicle and herself stranded near the cabin. Mia’s unexpected intrusion brings to light long simmering problems in the couple’s marriage and before long all three are at each other’s throat. What they don’t know is that Havoc has escaped into the nearby woods and soon will be at theirs…

As before the opening setpiece has nothing to do with, or will have no bearing on, everything that follows, nor will it ever be referenced again for that matter. While Playing with Dolls: Havoc is by far the most technically solid entry thus far - even if it takes a few liberties with what little previous two episodes took ages to establish – there’s plenty of wasted potential abound. Prisoner AYO-886 or Havoc has been reduced to a brute, mute force of nature and this chapter would probably have been far more effective as a siege horror movie in tradition of Night of the Living Dead (1968) or The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). The sense of isolation is palatable and while the occupants of the cabin do their fair share of bickering amongst themselves, it’s never the reason why they end up butchered in short order by Havoc. Havoc still has the tendency to become practically a ghost whenever the script paints itself in a corner. Moreover Perez’ screenplay categorically refuses to offer any explanation for anything. Why hasn’t law enforcement gotten wise to the case yet? Why does nobody come looking for any of the previous victims? Who is Havoc and why does he kill? By what criterions does Havoc let his victims live? What became of or happened to the elderly Dane that owned the cabin in the original? Even by lowly American slasher standards Playing with Dolls: Havoc has treacherously little story. On the plus side, it’s also the first Playing with Dolls chapter wherein Richard Tyson and Marilyn Robrahm are unaccounted for. His Scopophilio is never mentioned by name, but only referred to as “the master”. Probably for the better too as Perez had no interest in developing said subplot further as it slowly started bogging the franchise down.

The only thing besides Stormi Maya (and her willingness to take her top off) that Playing with Dolls: Havoc has going for it is the special effects work from Marcus Koch and Oliver Poser (as Oliver Müller). Koch and Poser provide mostly gratuitous fountains of blood and even a few admittedly good looking prosthetic effects. Most of it will probably appeal to fans of masters of gore Olaf Ittenbach, Andreas Schnaas, and Alex Chandon. Stormi Maya Jellison is the third curvy African-American girl (preceded by Alanna Forte in tbe original and Elonda Seawood in the first sequel) in as many episodes and like the other characters here her cold opportunist doesn’t remotely deserve to die as gruesomely and bloodily as they inevitably all do. Of all the Playing with Dolls episodes up until this point this set of characters was by far the most sympathetic.

The dismantling of the victims takes a turn for the creative while Perez’ writing remains as thin as always and his direction finally seems to approach what can be cautiously called competent. Perez could probably built a steady career with either The Asylum or TomCat Films and at this point it would be interesting for him to try his hand at different genres. The whole jilted lovers main plot is something out of a classic gothic horror and Nicole Stark would have been stellar as a Barbara Steele surrogate. With access to Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley the plot would have worked as a Castle Of Blood (1964) or Nightmare Castle (1965) reworking, either as a period piece or in a contemporary setting. Perez would be the ideal candidate to give Blood Of the Virgins (1967), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) or Nude For Satan (1974) a much-needed make-over.

You have admire the tenacity and sheer force of will that Rene Perez puts into each and every one of his mini-epics. Like Albert Pyun before him Perez is never shy about imitating a popular brand or doing his own demented take on an established formula. Perez had the cojones to helm Death Kiss (2018) and The Punished (2018), his take on Death Wish (1974, 2018) and The Punisher (1989, 2004), respectively. In all honesty, we tend to like Perez’ take on classic European fairytales far more than the rest of his repertoire at this point. The Wishing Forest (2018) seems to be the halfway point between his fairtytale yarns and Playing with Dolls. While working on the fringes of cinema can have its benefits there’s more than enough precedent in America alone that a lack of budget not necessarily precludes a lack of talent and resourcefulness. Lloyd Lee Barnett’s Ninja Apocalypse (2014) was able to do a lot with very little and Benjamin Combes’ Commando Ninja (2018) not only was the perfect throwback to over-the-top 80s action, what it lacked in budget it made up in sheer inventiveness and enthusiasm. Neither of which Playing with Dolls has displayed three episodes in. There’s not many ways to do a slasher wrong, but Rene Perez has apparently done just that. If Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016) had a pulse, then Playing with Dolls: Havoc sees Perez’ beast lumbering around with blood on its hands and murder on its mind.

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.