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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: 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.