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: 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 Omnia Elgammal) 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 and incidental 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.