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Plot: princess Aurora falls into a deep slumber. Can a warrior save the kingdom?

No doubt filmed in response to Casper van Dien’s Sleeping Beauty (2014) and shot on a budget that couldn’t possibly have extended beyond a few Twinkies, some Skittles, and whatever pocketchange was on hand among cast and crew; Rene Perez’ Sleeping Beauty elevates cosplaying, not of the advanced variety but rather the one on the wrong side of cheap, to an artform. The historical basis for Sleeping Beauty was the Brothers Grimm fairytale Little Briar Rose from 1812, which itself was a retelling of La Belle au bois dormant from Charles Perrault. 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. Perrault in turn based his writings upon the earlier Italian fairytale Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile as written in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. As with The Snow Queen (2013) before it his Sleeping Beauty also deviates quite a bit from the beloved fairytale from whence it came. Sleeping Beauty tries to overcompensate by having early Perez babes Jenny Allford, Gemma Donato, and Raven Lexy disrobe early and often. While it’s certainly superior to The Snow Queen (2013) that isn’t saying much at all.

In an arboreal kingdom princess Aurora (Jenny Allford) is en route to negiotiate a truce with evil witch Carbosse (Raven Lexy). A member of the Royal Guard (Haref Topete) tries to convince Aurora that she’s walking into a trap, but she presses on anyway. Having reached the witch’s castle she wanders the interiors for a while until she comes across an enchanted spindle. She’s drawn in, stings herself, and falls into a deep slumber. Once word gets back to the kingdom William (Robert Amstler), the brave Commander of the Guard, embarks on a perilous quest to vanquish Carbosse and awaken the princess. On his travel he saves displaced and desperate Elf seer Alondra (Gemma Donato, as Gemma Danoto) from an assault by a brute barbarian (Joseph Aviel). Alondra realizes that her magic is not strong enough and that they require the counsel and help of wise wizard Samrin (John J. Welsh, as John Welsh). Meanwhile Carbosse instructs her henchman Enkrail (David Reinprecht) to find a maiden (Heather Montanez) that looks like Aurora so she can lay a trap. As the fellowship travels across the kingdom they are beset by many dangers, and William faces off against the demonic Octulus (Robert S. Dixon). When they finally reach the witch’s castle, one final confrontation awaits. Will the magic of Alondra and Samrin, as well as William’s blade be enough to withstand the malefic Carbosse?

Sleeping Beauty dares answer the question that nobody asked: “what would Lord Of the Rings have been had it had bare tits?” Or what would Game Of Thrones (2011-2019) have looked like on a budget that couldn’t even cover Emilia Clarke’s wardrobe. It’s a painful example of what happens when you let ditzy California girls play Elfs, regal princesses, and evil sorceresses. There’s a point to be made that every girl wants to be a princess and Sleeping Beauty offers enough of a counterpoint that not every buxom blonde beach babe should given the keys to the kingdom. The cast consists of the usual stuntmen and models, and nobody can really act. There are different phases in Perez’ career, roughly divided into everything that came before Playing with Dolls (2015), and everything that came after. Little Red Riding Hood (2016) is an exception of sorts. While it features Alanna Forte in a non-speaking part, it looks as if it was shot before Playing with Dolls (2015), but only released after. It’s purely conjecture on our part, but Irina Levadneva is curiously absent. Levadneva was one of the early Perez muses, but she was never seen again once Rene started helming Playing with Dolls (2015), and its series of sequels, as were Gemma Donato, and Raven Lexy for that matter.

What little production value Sleeping Beauty has comes from location shooting at Castle Noz in San Joaquin Valley, and Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley. If anything, even this early Perez knew how to frame a scene, and there are some truly idyllic landscapes from Redwood National Park, San Joaquin Valley, and Shasta County to be seen. The blue demon that imprisons Aurora in the castle sort of looks like the Jem'Hadar shock troops of the Dominion from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999). As with The Snow Queen (2013) the year before Sleeping Beauty takes many liberties with the source material, and it never quite becomes the American fantastique it ought to have been. What it lacks in production value or good writing it makes up in ample amounts of exposed flesh with Allford, Donato, and Lexy each having extended nude scenes. The visual effects are somehow better than in the later Little Red Riding Hood (2016) and Sleeping Beauty is not nearly as prone to meandering atmospheric padding scenes that add nothing. Perez did better features before and after with both The Snow Queen (2013) and Sleeping Beauty being vastly superior to Little Red Riding Hood (2016). While we would have loved more Donato and Lexy in later features they, along with Irina Levadneva, were never seen again in the post-Playing with Dolls (2015) years.

Seeing Sleeping Beauty almost makes you wish Perez would do an American take on The Nude Vampire (1970), Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Black Magic Rites (1973), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), Seven Women For Satan (1976), or The Living Dead Girl (1982). In fact knowing Perez and his predilections he would be ideally suited to continue the cinematic legacy of Jean Rollin, Luigi Batzella, and Renato Polselli. If his later work is anything to go by he himself seems not interested in such a thing in the slightest. No, first and foremost Rene Perez is an action-oriented director who loves classic exploitation, something which Death Kiss (2018) and Cabal (2020) would amply evince years down the line, and atmospheric Eurocult inspired ditties aren’t his forté. He could probably lens a giallo if he ever found a decent writing partner and some high-end urban locations. Arrowstorm Entertainment does the entire indie fantasy thing way better than Perez ever could. As it stands Sleeping Beauty is one of the better early Perez features but it doesn’t and can’t hold a candle to the vastly superior and better realized Playing with Dolls (2015) and most that came after. Rene Perez has grown a lot in the year since and Sleeping Beauty is an example of his earlier rougher, more unrefined style.

Plot: mercenary happens upon conspiracy while tracking mass murderer.

Rene Perez describes Cabal as a tribute to “80s exploitation” which is just about the biggest oxymoron if there ever was one. At the dawn of the 80s the grindhouses on 42nd street were on the verge of extinction as the burdgeoning home video market swept in as a cleansing fire and the new alternative for low budget thrills. Semantics aside, Perez directed, edited, photographed, scored, and co-wrote Cabal with frequent collaborator Barry Massoni, and it’s one of his best this side of Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018). Eva Hamilton once again showcases that she’s the best Perez babe since Nicole Stark, Karin Brauns, Irina Levadneva, and Alanna Forte. Cabal is very much Cry Havoc (2019) with a late seventies/early eighties exploitation aesthetic. Death Kiss (2018) was an obvious tribute to Death Wish (1974). Cabal seems to be a tribute to the backwood horror and cheapo action features that were popular in the early eighties.

To say that Rene Perez has come a long way since The Snow Queen (2013) would be putting it mildly. In the last couple of years Perez has gotten far more dynamic and mobile in the way he shoots and lines up his scenes. His static scenic shots now only are part of a much wider palette and his keen eye for beautiful landscapes hasn’t dulled. When conceptualizing Cabal he probably looked towards bonafide American classics as Bloodeaters (1980), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), I Drink Your Blood (1970), and Raw Force (1982). As for the government conspiracy angle Coma (1978), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), or Eyes Behind the Stars (1978) are likely inspirations. Honestly, as much as we can get behind Cabal on mere principle as it obviously has it heart in the right place, it just so happens to be confused about what exactly it wants to be. Cabal is four movies mangled into one – it isn’t Commando Ninja (2018) or anything.

One day military contractor Dragonfly (John Ozuna) makes his acquaintance with Elizabeth (Eva Hamilton) in a local wateringhole. Elizabeth has been investigating the disappearance of a number of nubile women in the California Redwood forests. She believes that the women are brought there by a band of human traffickers who harvest their organs for interested third-parties. To get to said organs and body parts they let the women loose in the woodlands where Sallos (Tony Jackson) dwells. Sallos is a deranged homicidal maniac sporting a mask and a barbwired axe with a known affinity for bodily dismemberment and his quick, brutal methods of execution. After negotiating terms of the contract Dragonfly sets out to find Sallos and any survivors.

It doesn’t take long before Dragonfly is able to locate Sallos. When he finds remains of other girls that went missing he happens upon a massive conspiracy involving the local elite with ties going to the highest echelons of government, the corporate world, and mass media. It seems that Dr. Bieger (Joseph Camilleri), his media magnate girlfriend Kathleen (Linda Bott), their mutual associate and head of operations Sloan (Keely Dervin) and corporate strongwoman Thea (Alexandra Fabbri, as Alex Fabbri) are part of a organ harvest ring with the help of Dr. Kelly (Denise Poole) at the local hospital. Their goal is obtain eternal youth and vitality which will allow them to further strengthen and consolidate their political – and economical influence to bend the powers that be to their will. Now the cabal has set their eye on a waitress (Candace Cannon) and aspiring model Priss (Rebecca Tarabocchia). Things take a turn for the personal when Elizabeth is ambushed by para-military forces and finds herself at the mercy of Sallos.

Whereas Death Kiss (2018) was blatant and obvious in what it imitated Cabal is far less so. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Cabal is supposed to pay homage to outside of “80s exploitation” - and that’s enough of a blanket term to be practically meaningless. With Cabal Rene has thrown together a bunch of different popular 80s fads without bothering too much, or at all, whether they mesh together, or not. First and foremost, Cabal is an action movie – complete with explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and bloodspatters. Second, it’s a backwood horror about a deranged masked killer stalking, hacking, and killing a bunch of pretty girls in a scenic woodland locale. Third, it’s a police thriller wherein a military contractor is hired by a private individual to track down a bunch of missing persons. Fourth, and finally, it’s conspiracy thriller about the wealthy and politically connected elite operating a clandestine organ harvest ring out of a hospital to attain the closest thing to immortality. Most of the time, however, Cabal feels like Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018) stitched together.

The new blood is, admittedly, a mixed bag. Tony Jackson replaces J.D. Angstadt as the prerequisite mute serial killer. Jackson’s performance is minimalist and brute, near identical to Angstadt in that regard. Angstadt, of course, modeled his role after Charlie Glackin. John Ozuna will make you pine for Robert Kovacs, David Reinprecht, and Robert Amstler. The girls? Well, there’s not really a whole to say about them. Rebecca Tarabocchia, Clementine Hetherington, and Kimberly Molina all do what girls like this in Perez features always do: they smile, take their top off, wimper, and die. Neither of them leaves much of an impression the way Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, Raven Lexy, Stormi Maya, or Elonda Seawood did. Melody Vaughan plays the kind of maternal, protective role that Malorie Glavan usually does. Only Denise Poole and Candace Cannon manage to do something with what little they are given. As for the oldtimers: Linda Bott, and Joseph Camilleri will make you wish Marilyn Robrahn, Richard Tyson or John J. Welsh were still around. Bott and Camilleri would feel right at home in the next Neil Breen spectacular. Illuminating every scene she’s in (and acting better than the majority of the cast, combined) is Eva Hamilton. Miss Hamilton is just about the best thing in Cabal.

For reasons inexplicable Perez has chosen a very desaturated color scheme. The lush vibrant colors of, say, Sleeping Beauty (2014) are conspicuous only by their absence. Sallos is pretty much a nonentity compared to Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and instead of a full-blown The Last House on the Left (1972) madmen-on-the-loose flick Cabal is, for the most part, a fairly conventional action movie with some horror dressings. Cabal would probably have benefitted from cutting Sallos altogether as the Neil Breen-like conspiracy is far more interesting than a bunch of scantily clad babes escaping from another axe-wielding masked maniac. Sallos can in no shape or form compete with Rene’s greatest creation Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and Cabal attests to that. Sallos has no real reason being in Cabal other then to provide a few gory kills, and he has no other function besides that.

The kidnapping and stalking could just as easy been done by the military personnel and there would be no notable narrative difference. The trailer is misleading in that it banks on the presence of Sallos so much. He’s just a peon. Here’s an idea for the next Playing with Dolls episode: an apocalyptic duel between Havoc and Sallos in the California Redwoods devised by The Watcher, with a bunch of pretty people acting as either cannon fodder or live bait. The score is a stroll down to memory lane with lots of ambient synths and piano. For that grimy grindhouse feel the digital film stock is artificially aged through the use of lines, grains, and speckles of dirt. It feels awfully 70s for an 80s throwback. The action direction and fight choreography from John Ozuna is sort of functional but one-dimensional – and has nothing on Hong Kong. Perhaps Perez should keep Ozuna as a consultant and employ Antony Cinturino, Danielle C. Ryan, or Cecily Fay.

Now that Rene is on an 80s revivalist binge let us pitch another idea. How about that long overdue LETHAL Ladies imitation we all know he has been pining to make? He could call it B.U.S.T. (or Branch of Unity, Strategy & Tactics. We have given this some thought, you see) and have the most beloved Perez babes face off against his usual array of stuntmen and bodybuilders. If anything over the years Rene has made some stellar casting choices that wouldn’t feel out of place in a vintage Andy Sidaris spycaper. Imagine what Perez could do with a stretch of beach, palm trees, a warm color palette and a female ensemble cast in pastel-colored bikinis wielding oversized guns and candy-colored cocktails. Who wouldn’t want to see Eva Hamilton, Spring Inés Peña, Omnia Bixler, Alanna Forte (or Elonda Seawood), Karin Brauns (or Wilma Elles), and Aurelia Scheppers (or Irina Levadneva) duke it out in an explosive battle against crimelord Richard Tyson, or Daniel Baldwin and their bevy of gun-wielding beautiful henchettes? What better opportunity than to have Stormi Maya, Raven Lexy, and Gemma Donato cameo? It would the ideal excuse to hire Breen babes Jennifer Autry, or Victoria Viveiros, low budget starlets like Schuylar Craig, Lisa Palenica, Alejandra Morin, Ginny You, and Tracey Birdsall or genuine talent like Cristine Reyes, Nicole Bilderback, Samantha Robinson or Nicola Posener. Andy made 12 of these things, and Rene (so far) has none. How’s that possible? We’d even help brainstorm a storyline outline with possible setpieces and locations, if that’s what it takes to get the ball rolling.

For most of its duration Cabal feels like a repurposed Playing with Dolls script. Over the years Rene has abundantly proven that he knows how to shoot an exciting action scene on a low budget. Death Kiss (2018) evinced that better than anything. Cabal might not be the next big Perez caper but it has its heart in the right place. The thing is that Cabal has a bit too much going on at any point and it lacks the focus of Death Kiss (2018). This would have worked wonders as a madmen-on-the-loose horror flick in tradition of The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or as a martial arts action movie in vein of Raw Force (1982). That Cabal starts out as an action movie only to turn into a backwood horror, and then to contort itself into a conspiracy thriller is what ultimately works to its detriment. It never settles on a specific tone nor direction. It’s everything at once, and none of the above. And that’s a shame. Especially when you have somebody as versatile Eva Hamilton at your disposal. Cabal does everything we have come to expect of a Perez feature – and while it may not surpass them, we can’t shake the impression that this could have been so much more. The trailer certainly looked promising. Perhaps a second go at Cabal might birth what this always should have been.