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Plot: reality show contestants run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

For reasons both inexplicable and incomprehensible the Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise is Rene Perez’ most persistent property next to his zombie series The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) and his penchant for reimagining classic European fairytales for mature audiences. He keeps churning out these things with no notable improvements (and with little variation) between episodes. The only fundamental change is that the series after Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2018) was rebranded as simply Havoc with Cry Havoc (2019) acting as the first episode under the flagship series’ new name. At best it’s a cosmetic change that has little to no bearing on the more fundamental problems that plagued this series since its beginnings in 2015. The original Playing with Dolls (2015) had its problems. The actual slashing was fairly minimal and it wasn’t remotely scare or tense. It did have a cool looking killer and the dynamic duo of Natasha Blasick and Alanna Forte remain unmatched. Redundancy and regression has long plagued the slasher subgenre and Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust is a good example of the American slasher persisting despite decades-long creative inertia and erosion.

Those hoping that Perez would at long last manifest something, anything, to warrant Playing with Dolls existing beyond the original will be sorely disappointed. If Playing With Dolls (2015) was a stylistic exercise, a mood piece above all else, then Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust is where things, minimal as they were, show mild signs of improvement. There’s an almost Jim Wynorski quality to the oeuvre of Rene Perez in that he shoots his features in a similar breakneck pace with little regard to things like screenwriting or stylistic cohesion. Like Big Apple breastlover Wynorski or Hawaiian low-budget specialist Albert Pyun, Perez too has access to a pool of actresses many of whom don’t seem to mind taking their tops off whenever the script requires. Granted Perez is only minimally exploitative but like the New York grandmaster his projects also seem to be based more on premises rather than finished scripts and by and large seem like an excuse to get his assembled actresses out of their clothes. Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust at least makes strides forward in terms of special effects but remains as anemic as ever in terms of narrative. Once again fishing in the model pool Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust has the good fortune of having Elonda Seawood - a last-minute replacement for Alanna Forte from the original - as a minority character not afraid to show off her goods.

Four people are lured to a remote cabin in a densely forested region under guise of a reality TV show. Each contestant has different reasons for partaking in the show. Stina (Karin Brauns, as Karin Isabell Brauns) is poor white trash, has a tween daughter (Leia Perez) to support, and just walked out on a titty bar job on moral objections. Magnus (Colin Bryant) is a struggling single father who has a son (Logan Serr) from a previous marriage to support. Nico (Elonda Seawood) is the prerequisite sassy black girl and thus has a full bra and an empty head, while Rodrigo (Andrew Espinoza Long) was apparently chosen for his intellect and wits. Their gravelly-voiced hostess Trudy (Marilyn Robrahm) informs them that whoever survives the week at the cabin will be awarded one million dollars in prize money and play the prestigious lead role in an upcoming horror production in the area. The cabin and surrounding woodland are monitored by an extensive surveillance system and the four are told that a deranged killer is on the loose. What they don’t know is that the killer isn’t an actor but Prisoner AYO-886 (Charlie Glackin). They are the latest “dolls” for him to “play with” in another social experiment from wealthy entrepreneur Scopophilio (Richard Tyson), who still continues to kidnap attractive young women (Omnia Bixler) as a side business.

In the hands of a professional screenwriter Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust could have said something about celebrity culture, society’s treatment of the poor and the marginalized, and race relations. Instead we’re stuck with one-note archetypes that barely qualify as characters. Stina is poor white trash (“mommy didn’t get an education” is her one and only defining line of dialogue), Magnus is the victim of poor decision-making, Rodrigo comes from an affluent background, and Nico is an airhead whose sole mission it is to show the world her magnificent rack. Speaking of large-breasted women and their fate in this kind of horror, just like Alanna Forte in the original, the opening gambit with Emma Chase Robertson coming to a gruesome end serves no function and won’t ever be referenced again. At no point does Perez show the slightest interest in expanding the Playing with Dolls (2015) premise. Instead of offering some insight into why exactly Scopophilio is doing what he does, or establishing any kind of backstory for Prisoner AYO-886 Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust has only the most ephemeral of plot. It is content to do what Playing with Dolls (2015) did the year before with a slightly larger set of characters. The only change (if it can be called that) is that Prisoner AYO-886 is no longer the conflicted colossus reluctant to kill and his increased bloodlust translates in a newfound penchant for severing extremities. Likewise is he no longer burdened by a plot-convenient conscience and the kill scenes make good use of his hulking presence and love for sharp-edged weapons.

The special effects work from Debbie and Joseph Cornell and Ryan Jenkins is far more ambitious and better realized than the minimalist original. Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust does not shy away from blood and gore although bloodsplatters and gunshot wounds still appear to be of the reviled CGI variety rather than more old fashioned practical effects that worked wonders for the classics. As turgid and tedious most of Perez’ movies tend to be at least the landscapes and locations he chooses to shoot in are uniformly beautiful. Especially the caves to and from Scopophilio’s subterranean hideout and the richly decorated tree-lair of Prisoner AYO-886. No wonder they featured more prominently in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) a year down the line. Perez could probably use them as a location for a potential remake of Alien 2: On Earth (1980), not that we would want to give him any ideas. Or rather we do, if Death Kiss (2018) is anything to go by Perez knows his classics. It makes you wonder why he hasn’t given the world that much pined after LETHAL Ladies derivate yet.

The obvious and natural question to arise is, of course, whether it was necessary to extent Playing with Dolls beyond the original? The answer to that is a glaring and resounding “no”. Playing with Dolls (2015) was decent for what it was, but didn’t warrant frequent revisiting. About the only ray of light was Alanna Forte during the opening gambit. Playing with Dolls (2015) seems to have drawn all the wrong conclusions from Friday the 13th (1980) and its very many inferior imitations from all over the world. Playing With Dolls: Bloodlust is largely cut from the same cloth and isn’t very interested in doing something beyond the basics of what is expected of a backwood slasher. Perez probably would excel in a Julia X (2011) imitation or a derivate of Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) which also featured plenty of nubile women in flagrante delicto and with little in the way of clothes. Practical effects notwithstanding Playing With Dolls: Bloodlust is decent at best but has little to offer beyond bloody kills. If anything, at least it showed that Playing With Dolls as a series was developing something resembling a pulse. What the continued (and continuing) existence of Rene Perez proves is that we finally seem to have a worthy heir to the dubious cinematic throne of Albert Pyun.

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.