Plot: homeless girl runs afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.
At the crossroads of Albert Pyun, Andy Sidaris, and Jim Wynorski lies the ever-expanding cinematic oeuvre of Rene Perez. Perez has been writing, producing and editing his own low budget features since 2010 and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping anytime soon. Around these parts Rene has garnered a degree of infamy with his very loose adaptations of classic European fairytales. Next to his various western crossovers Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013), Prey for Death (2015), and From Hell to the Wild West (2017) his zombie franchise The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) has proven resilient. Perez shoots features by the old 42nd Street adage of blood, boobs, bullets, and babes. Death Kiss (2018) - his vigilante justice crime exploitationer modeled after Death Wish (1974) with professional Charles Bronson impersonator Robert Kovacs - is perhaps his most legendary. Before Death Kiss (2018) there was Playing with Dolls, Rene’s loving tribute to backwood horror, and the classic American slasher. Cabal (2020) was a good throwback to late seventies/early eighties exploitation, but conceptually didn't gel entirely. Playing with Dolls is the scion of Three on a Meathook (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and to a lesser degree Friday the 13th (1980). Rene knows his classics.
Things haven’t exactly been looking up for Ukrainian immigrant Cindy (Natasha Blasick). In short order her roommate left taking with her all belongings, furniture and appliances from their apartment, Cindy is fired from her job and evicted by her landlord (John Welsh) who tries to extort sexual favors from her to make up for the rent she’s still due. Out of the blue Cindy receives a phonecall from a lawyer (Allisun Sturges) inquiring whether she would be interested in a month-long housesitting job for a hefty sum of money. Thinking her luck has finally turned Cindy heads out unprepared to the agreed-upon rendez-vous point to meet her employer. There she runs into a creepy farmer (John Scuderi) before a delegation takes her deep into the densely forested woodlands to a luxurious log cabin far away from civilization. It never dawns on Cindy that the sudden appearance of a high-paying job and a working-space cut off from civilization with no transportation, or communication is not in the least a bit sketchy. Alas, such blissfully aware epiphanies will not be forthcoming until it is late. Too late, at any rate. Isolated and bored out of her skull Cindy drowns herself in hard liquor and modeling high-end fashion to kill time…
What she doesn’t realize is she has become the latest victim in a social experiment engineered by, and for the vicarious pleasures of, mysterious benefactor Scopophilio (Richard Tyson). Not only has he facilitated the release of psychotic masked serial killer Prisoner AYO-886 (Charlie Glackin) but he has chosen her to be the next “doll” for the deranged madman to “play with”. On the side Scopophilio (obviously derived from scopophilia, or the Latin term for voyeurism) has his assistant Trudy (Marilyn Robrahm) kidnap attractive young women for his personal gratification the most recent victim (Elonda Seawood) has been kept in a perpetually drugged state. Scopophilio somehow is able to steer Prisoner AYO-886’s actions by voice commands. The woodland area and cabin are monitored by an extensive surveillance system and the perimeter is guarded by a well-equipped private para-military force headed up by an unstable commando (Sean Story). Lounging out in the hot tub one day Cindy meets battered and blooded police officer Burnett (David A. Lockhart) who has been tracking the murderer since a string of unexplained disappearances in Lithuania. It’s only a question of who will get to them first; Prisoner AYO-886 or the para-military forces?
A better writer had explored all the interesting themes that Perez briefly glances upon and then ignores for the rest of the feature. Playing with Dolls, either by design or by sheer dumb luck, touches upon the ever-widening divide between the rich and the poor, the desperation that poverty drives people into, the addiction to alcohol and related substances to which it inevitably leads and the social isolation that it enables. This could have been about the journey of a young woman overcoming great personal shortcomings and less than fortunate circumstances to learn something important about herself through a traumatic experience in the deep woods. Instead Playing with Dolls seems mostly concerned with out of nowhere action scenes, plodding and obvious padding that has Natasha Blasick in a three-minute montage showing off various clothes and moments later has her dancing around the cabin in a drunken stupor.
Blasick, for all intents and purposes, seems to play a part probably intended for Irena Levadneva but she never acted again after Little Red Riding Hood (2016). It opens with sometime Perez muse (and bootylicious swimsuit model) Alanna Forte being chased through a snowclad woodland before ending up bound and gagged and losing a nipple. An opening from which we can deduce that Perez has either seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Somehow it doesn’t turn into a throwback to the deranged excesses of the golden age of grindhouse slashers of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 80s. Forte gets naked in more Rene Perez features but in her screen debut Alanna’s character (if it can be called that) doesn’t even get so much as a name, let alone a backstory of some kind. Charlie Glackin is at his best when he can non-verbally act as a hulking and blunt instrument of wanton dismemberment and death. For reasons that will never be explained, Prisoner AYO-886 is prone to flashes of confusion and reluctance to kill as if he's suddenly burdened by a consciousness or a humanity.
Perez has expressed that he was aiming to avoid the usual slasher conventions, and that he does. For the most part Playing with Dolls is filmed as a ghost horror. It’s the sort of production that the Camp Blood (1999-2020) nonology would be if it ever got its collective wits together (which it never did). As such Playing with Dolls oozes with atmosphere like no other. To call this a fantastique would be a misnomer but it operates on the same dream-logic. Natasha Blasick and Forte both take their clothes off. The sexual undercurrent to some of Prisoner AYO-886’s actions with sharp-edged utensils and the way Perez lovingly glides his camera across and over the minimally clad or disrobed bodies of Forte and Blasick is something straight out of a Jim Wynorski flick. There are so many instances where Perez lets his camera glide over Natasha Blasick’s rear that you’d swear Tinto Brass was involved with the production. Not that we’d blame Perez for getting as much mileage out of Blasick’s gloriously well-formed posterior as he does, it’s probably her most beloved asset. What’s painfully clear even this early on is that not the cast, not the plot or the special effects drive Perez’ productions but the truly scenic locations he chooses. To his credit the way Rene Perez photographs the California woodlands is absolutely lyrical and it’s a crying shame that Rene later transformed Playing with Dolls in exactly what he avoided here. Once Playing with Dolls was extended into a franchise it did become a standard slasher. Perez has an eye for locations, striking visuals, and makes the most of what is by all accounts very little. He would probably make an absolute killing at directing moderate budget music videos if given the opportunity.
Playing with Dolls is the kind of slasher that doesn’t slash, where characters are so underwritten and static that they very well might not exist at all, and where the spooky locations and exteriors tell more of a story than the production they’re appearing in. The fight choreography and action direction aren’t much to write home about and the amount of CGI bloodsplatters are as fake as they are obvious. How Playing with Dolls would have benefited from old-fashioned practical – and prosthetic effects work. The synth score is hokey for the most part, completely unfitting at worst and makes one long for the likes of Anthony Riparetti, Gary Stockdale, Dave Andrews, Thomas Cappeau, or Joel Goldsmith. About the only thing that Playing with Dolls gets right is the design of Prisoner AYO-886. He is a hulking monstrosity of a man with the same fashion sense as Jason Voorhees and a Leatherface-styled dead skin mask complete with Frankensteinian steel enforcements and barb wire decorations. The biggest star next to the wonderful Californian landscapes and the assorted naked breasts of the female cast is Richard Tyson from Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), the Farelly brothers’ comedy hit There’s Something About Mary (1998), Battlefield Earth (2000), and Black Hawk Down (2001). As much as he has an eye for scenic beauty Perez’ taste in women is equally impeccable as between Alanna Forte, Natasha Blasick and Elonda Seawood there’s something for everybody.
We have a sneaking suspicion that Rene Perez would probably fare well doing an Andy Sidaris styled spy-action romp with girls in candy-colored bikinis and oversized explosions. In fact we’re surprised that, so far, he has decided to stay within the horror, action, science fiction and fantastic realms thus far. For one we’d love to see a fun-loving action romp with the likes of Irena Levadneva, Jenny Allford, Alanna Forte, Elonda Seawood, Stormi Maya, and Natasha Blasick. Or at the very least a Jean Rollin or José Ramon Larraz inspired female vampire romp where Perez’ minimalism to narrative and production is actually a benefit. Perez would be the ideal candidate to carry on the cinematic legacy of Andy and Christopher Drew Sidaris and their LETHAL Ladies. In fact his recent Death Kiss (2018) was such a true to form imitation of Death Wish (1974) that it came replete with Charles Bronson lookalike Robert Kovacs. History has proven that Perez would get better with time and subsequent Playing with Dolls installments would be much more violent, gruesome, and full of practical effects work. Alex Chandon is generally better at this sort of thing, but Playing with Dolls does not tend to grate on the nerves as much as his batshit insane reworkings of European fairytales. If you are prepared to meet the Perez oeuvre halfway it can be surprisingly entertaining, actually.