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Plot: young woman navigates a forest full of horrors and terrors.

Little Red Riding Hood was (so far) the last of three European fairytale adaptations from California filmmaker Rene Perez. In the years before he had lensed versions of Sleeping Beauty (2014), and The Snow Queen (2013). Little Red Riding Hood came five long years after Catherine Hardwicke’s big budget Red Riding Hood (2011) with Amanda Seyfried, and thus could impossibly be accused of trying to ride its coattails. It was shot back-to-back with his other moodpiece The Obsidian Curse (2016) and it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Perez wanted to briefly focus on something lighter before delving further into the Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise and starting pre-production on his now infamous Death Kiss (2018). Little Red Riding Hood is a cosplaying extravaganza gone very much awry, and it’s understandable why Perez never returned to adapting fairytales after.

While the history of Little Red Riding Hood can be traced back to several 10th century European folk tales it was 17th-century French poet Charles Perrault who provided the basis for its popular and most enduring iteration with his Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. 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. In the 19th century German poets Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm retold the Perrault fairytale loyal to the source material, but toned down the darker themes considerably to make it more audience-friendly. Rene Perez’ adaptation of the tale keeps the basic contours of the Perrault and Grimm iterations of the story, but takes some strange twists and turns along the way. Normally there isn’t a whole of ways to bungle something as simple as Little Red Riding Hood. Alas, Perez and screenwriter Barry Massoni have managed to do just that.

Little Red Riding Hood (Irina Levadneva, as Iren Levy) is traveling through the woods to bring medicine to her “gravely ill” grandmother (Marilyn Robrahm). On the way she’s warned by an apparently dead knight (John Scuderi) that the forest is haunted by terrible horrors, and that her “pureness” will attract the agents of evil. In the castle in the deep forest the Master (Robert S. Dixon) has sensed Little Red Riding Hood’s presence, and from the dungeons below he releases the Lycanthrope (Louie Ambriz), the Blind Creature (Jason Jay Prado, as Jason Prado), and the Evil Siren (Raula Reed) into the woods. Little Red Riding Hood is chased across the forest and into the castle by the Lycanthrope. Meanwhile in the earthly dimension social media influencer Carol Marcus (Nicole Stark) is on a hikingtrip across California shooting nature pictures. Eventually she comes across a mansion in the deep woods where she’s haunted by a spectral manifestation of the Master. As Little Red Riding Hood wanders around the castle she comes across an imprisoned monk (Colin Hussey) who tells her that the Master is one of the Ancients, the last survivors of Atlantis, and that he feeds on fear. On the other side of the forest a knight (Robert Amstler) is lured into the castle by the Evil Siren in form of a beautiful gypsy (Alanna Forte). Now that they’re both imprisoned in the castle walls there’s no other way to escape but to confront the Master in any way they can, and release the spell that binds them to the castle…

To say that Little Red Riding Hood is both virtually plotless and hopelessly convoluted at the same time would be charitable. As a simple three-act story Red Riding Hood lends itself ideally for adaptations. Except that Barry Massoni and Rene Perez forgot to set up the main characters in the first act, pad the second act with meandering and endless shots of the castle interiors and the Nicole Stark subplot, only to hastily wrap everything up in what looks like an improvised ending. Then there’s also the fact that this Little Red Riding Hood has very little to do with either the Perrault or Grimm fairytale, while it does feature a girl in a red hood, a wolf, and a grandmother. The Nicole Stark subplot feels more than a little out of place, and would have fitted better in Playing with Dolls (2015), or Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016). Why the Nicole Stark subplot was even included is anybody’s guess. It goes nowhere, adds nothing of value, and is never brought up again once the valiant knight is introduced. More than anything it feels like a b-roll from Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016). Instead of introducing grandmother and setting up why it’s imperative that Little Red Riding Hood reaches her destination, a throwaway line is all motivation we get. The warrior is the closest equivalent to the woodcutter (or hunter) from the fairytale, but he will not be rescueing Little Red Riding Hood from the Big Bad Wolf, or carving him up. Not that this is the first time that Rene Perez took to adapting a European fairytale very, very liberally, Sleeping Beauty (2014), and The Snow Queen (2013) suffer from the same defects, and the latter even had the gall to introduce a para-military subplot.

On the plus side, this is a Rene Perez production which at least ensures that there will be plenty to look at. In case of Little Red Riding Hood that means we are treated to a multitude of beautifully composed shots and scenic Redwood National Park landscapes. What little production value Little Red Riding Hood has is almost entirely thanks to extensive location filming at Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley. As early as The Snow Queen (2013) Perez has proven that he just as easy could make a living shooting music videos when he isn’t making movies. Just like that movie Little Red Riding Hood occassionally reverts back to an extended LARPing exercise captured on camera, but just like Rene has a good eye for locations he loves beautiful women just as much. On display here are Irina Levadneva, Nicole Stark, and Alanna Forte. Stark, and Forte are Perez regulars and would turn up in future Perez features, contrary to Levadneva who would resume modeling. Little Red Riding Hood is low on action, story, and lacking in about every department – but it works wonders as a moodpiece. If Perez should decide to revisit this fantasy direction he should probably lens a Jean Rollin erotic horror feature, or dig up the wolf-suit and helm his own Paul Naschy inspired El Hombre Lobo epic. He has the monster suits, the locations, and the actresses to do just such a thing.

Just like Sleeping Beauty (2014) had a demon that resembled the Jem'Hadar shock troops of the Dominion from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999) Perez has Stark playing a character named Carol Marcus and has her do the Vulcan salute, for… some reason? The least you can say is that Rene has a sense of humor about it all. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a Neil Johnson science-fiction feature, thankfully Rene would find better stuff to do for, and with, Nicole Stark in his later productions. The dialogue, when it appears and however little of it there is in the first place, is about as clunky as you’d expect. Matters are made worse by Robert Amstler’s and Irina Levadneva’s impossibly thick native accents (Austrian and Russian, respectively), hence that they were dubbed by Kristina Kennedy and Robert Koroluck. Overall, and a few beautiful composed shots notwithstanding, Little Red Riding Hood is a fairly static affair. This was before Perez really got a grip on creative camera set-ups and moving shots. Little Red Riding Hood, just like The Obsidian Curse (2016) the same year, often feels more like a technical exercise than a feature intended for general release. And that’s okay, Perez’ later productions obviously benefitted from it in the long run.

Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an improvement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.