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Plot: troubled young woman is beset by ghouls and ghosts.

Very much a transitional piece between the glorified cosplay of Little Red Riding Hood (2016) and his earlier European fairytale adaptations and the later Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) sequels The Obsidian Curse is rank horror pulp that barely ever generates so much as a pulse. As a remake of Perez’ earlier Demon Hunters (2012) (released domestically as Obsidian Hearts) it recombines props, creatures, locations, and plotlines from the early Perez canon and reconfigures them into something that hopefully will elicit a reaction and sway a few into watching. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about with The Obsidian Curse. Overall it looks more like a technical exercise than a real attempt at crafting a horror movie. It truly is sad that Reggie Bannister and Richard Tyson ended up in the warped world of Rene Perez.

The Obsidian Curse is not your typical Perez fare which is about the best that can be reasonably said about it. It eschews much of the plot-free meandering of his earlier fairytale adaptations and at this juncture his expertise wasn’t at the point where it matched his ambition. As such The Obsidian Curse is a strange nonentity that is neither here nor there. It starts as a conventional human interest drama, but quickly abandons that in favor of stereotypical ghost movie shadows and jumpscares before attempting to sell itself as an exercise in the open-gateway-to-hell subgenre that was popular in Italy in the nineteen-eighties. Suffice to say it succeeds in neither and very much recalls the bygone days of Little Red Riding Hood (2016), Sleeping Beauty (2014), and The Snow Queen (2013). Unfortunately Natasha Blasick, Irina Levadneva, Nadia Lanfranconi, Aurelia Scheppers, and Jenny Allford are nowhere to be seen. At this stage in his career Perez had a thing for the petite Nicole Stark and Swedish svelte Karin Brauns. Brauns would reunite with Glackin, and Tyson in Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016) and with Stark in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) a year later. The biggest name present is Reggie Bannister of the Don Coscarelli horror classic Phantasm (1979) and Richard Tyson from Kindergarten Cop (1990), There's Something About Mary (1998), Battlefield Earth (2000), and Black Hawk Down (2001). Nicole Stark and Karin Brauns currently count as the most recurring Perez babes of this period.

Newly released after a year in federal prison for felony drug charges 25-year-old single mother Blair Jensen (Karin Brauns) is struggling to make ends meet. In the year that she was incarcerated her estranged husband Roberto (John Caraccioli) remarried and is now with white picket fence Donna (Julia Lehman) who keeps tabs on Blair’s daughter Linda (Leia Perez), much to her dismay. She has found temporary housing with her friend Kitty (Nicole Stark), but she will have to find a legal source of income and suitable housing of her own if she’s to retain visitation rights with Linda. A social worker (Marilyn Robrahn) is assigned to her case to monitor her progress in getting her life in order. In her desperation to find employment Blair is lured into a cave by a Mr. Cobb (Robert Koroluck) on the promise of an interview for a possible tourist guide job opening. In the darkness she has a hex placed upon her by a witch (Jessica Koffler) but Blair won’t be realizing that until much later. Before long she’s under assault by ghouls, ghosts, and the denizens of the dark. While everybody thinks Blair’s losing her mind, paranormal investigator Professor Reginald M. Sydow (Reggie Bannister) and his associate Arthur (Richard Tyson) are drawn to her case for their own personal reasons. Also on the prowl is psychotic serial killer Rudolf Masterson (Charlie Glackin) who has a thing for girls like her as his captive Yvonne (Cody Renee Cameron) attests to. Will Blair be able to break the curse of the Obsidian Heart that was bestowed on her?

In its defense The Obsidian Curse is a cut above the cinematic LARPing of Little Red Riding Hood (2016), and Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013) but that is faint praise. Indeed, there’s a lot that will look familiar to the Perez faithful: the woods and cabin from Playing with Dolls (2015), the castle and Eye Creature from Little Red Riding Hood (2016), the bar from Playing With Dolls: Bloodlust (2016), the caves from Playing With Dolls: Havoc (2017), and the witch attire from The Snow Queen (2013). What mostly kills The Obsidian Curse is that it’s all over the map. It begins as a ghost horror or demonic possession movie, briefly toys with the idea of turning suburban gothic horror before throwing in a modest legion of the living dead and a serial killer to facilitate some form of action. That it never decides what it wants to be is perhaps its biggest undoing. Somewhere in The Obsidian Curse there’s a decent little fright flick but under Perez’ direction nothing ever comes of it. Even by Perez standards it’s curiously low on both blood and boobs. Nicole Stark and Cody Renee Cameron both have brief topless scenes and the gore isn’t as abundant and gratuitous as it would be in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017). It’s also marred considerably by rather dubious looking visual effects from Perez regular Ignace Aleya. Rene Perez certainly has a penchant for making the most of what is very little, but not everything is defensible.

More than anything it’s unclear what the point of The Obsidian Curse is supposed to be. As a human interest drama it isn’t very interested in the human aspect and not the drama isn’t explored beyond general contours. As a horror movie it borders a bit too much on the fantastic to be scary or tense, and for a very late fantastique (a genre typically practiced in France and Spain) it has none of that deeply intense oneiric quality that the genre requires. It has superficial elements of it and it will occassionally wander into a fantastique moment or scene by mistake, but that’s the extent of it. You never get the impression that Blair’s life as a former felon in any way poses a challenge. Almost immediately she finds appropriate housing and access to fashionable clothes, a cellphone, and transportation. Certainly it’s not the focus of The Obsidian Curse but had that subplot been better developed it would make Blair’s subsequent plight a whole lot more believable. The stakes are never clear either. She obviously wants to be reunited with her daughter, but Donna’s opaque motivations are never made clear why she visits the Obsidian Heart curse on Blair, or how that forwards her objectives. Whether the Obsidian Heart is supposed to be an inversion of the Catholic devotion of the Sacred Heart of Christ is another thing entirely, but not within the purview of this review. That Kitty, Roberto, and the social worker completely disappear and are never mentioned or seen again in the second half only makes matters worse. Thankfully Rene Perez has improved in leaps and bounds in his writing since The Obsidian Curse. Not that that is saying much, but regardless...

Cody Renee Cameron

As a technical exercise The Obsidian Curse is good enough. Perez has mastered aerial drone shots, mobile and moving camera set-ups; and the whole thing is not nearly as static as some of his earlier productions. The rubber monsters refurbished from Little Red Riding Hood (2016) look the part as does the witch attire from The Snow Queen (2013). The remainder of the monsters and the cave witch do look like the cheap Halloween costumes that they are and the handful of zombies were recycled wholesale from The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015).

For the most part The Obsidian Curse feels like a patchwork of mostly disconnected scenes that Perez was dying to commit to film and that he wrote a perfunctory story around. In other words, the various elements in The Obsidian Curse never gel and the only remotely good thing here is Nicole Stark and the movie completely forgets about her halfway through. Cody Renee Cameron on the other hand is too good for inane cinematic swill like this. The Obsidian Curse is more of an experiment in camera set-ups and moving shots than anything else. For all intents and purposes it’s one of those features that should have remained in Perez’ personal vaults, but we somehow got it anyway. The only good thing that came from The Obsidian Curse is that it begat Playing With Dolls: Havoc (2017), Death Kiss (2018) and Cry Havoc (2019). Unless you’re a Rene Perez completist there’s no reason to rush out and see this mostly uneventful exercise in horror banality.

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.