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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: alien lifeform rids the Earth of politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, and corporatists.

Everybody’s favorite delusional Las Vegas Christian geek green-Marxist is back, and he’s now more unhinged and volatile than ever! Neil’s done playing nice. No more warnings, no more second chances. Our favorite “visionary” filmmaker of “controversial” and “thought-provoking” cinema refuses to compromise, to negotiate, to mediate. Breen gave humanity a fair and final warning in Double Down (2005), and a last second chance in I Am Here…. Now (2009). Neil’s a man of action and a proponent of denim. In Pass Thru he steps up his game by dressing exclusively in denim and advocating for the extermination of 300 million people, no less! This time around Neil has no time for the womanfolk, and Breen’s love interest is a complete nonentity. Pass Thru is fringe cinema at the utmost extreme. A barely coherent screed from a director who has clearly lost all touch with reality and probably most of his marbles…

Pass Thru is not your average Neil Breen film. No. It’s a greatest hits of sorts and a partial remake of both Double Down (2005) and I Am Here…. Now (2009). It kinda-sorta-but-not-really is a Breen take on the Robert Wise science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Like Breen’s 2009 feature Pass Thru is drenched in intentionally opaque Native American and New Age mysticism. Of course it’s full of Neil’s patented blunt force symbolism, and it’s historic for being the first of two Breen features produced during the Trump presidency the second being Twisted Pair (2018). Times, presidents, and political climates may change – but that doesn’t mean that old Neil does. The surge in anti-intellectualism, fundamentalist religious fervor and - persecution, as well as the untethered bigotry and corruption that has pervaded every branch of government was unprecedented at this point in recent history. Never has Breen’s message sounded more socially relevant than it did here. If there’s ever a frightening prospect, it’s Breen resonating with the times….

In the Nevada desert somewhere near the Mexican border callous human traffickers have established a make-shift commune where they hide their captives. One day a heroin-addict (Neil Breen) shoots up and passes out. Around the same time Amanda (Kathy Corpus) and her niece Kim (Chaize Macklin) manage to break out of captivity and come across the addict and his rundown, garbage-infested trailer. He offers the girls shelter for as long as they need. He calls himself Thgil (“light” spelled backwards, because Breen's messiah complex and celestial pretensions haven't lessened in the slightest) and claims to be an A.I. of superior intellect from the far future. Amanda initially puts no stock in what he says, but he shows telekinesis to substantiate his claims. Thgil can bend space, time, and matter to his will – and he has returned to this primitive earth to eliminate 300 million “bad” people. “The Cleanse,” he says, “has begun!” Thgil will first whet his genocidal appetites with the human traffickers and liberate the immigrant commune from bondage. From there he will move on to the actual scum and villainy that are corrupt politicians, lawyers, Wall Street brokers, CEOs, and press officials.

Meanwhile, a boy (Abraham Rodriguez) and a girl (Taylor Johnson) who share the common interest of music and astronomy have discovered alien activity. They have alerted their aging and ailing professor (James D. Smith) to their plans to travel deep into the Nevada desert to pinpoint the location. While that is happening Thgil uses his vast intellect to insinuate himself into high society cocktail parties where he erases presidents of banks (Adriane McLean), insurance (Brad Thomte), and media (Judy Thomas) out of existence. He then moves on to senators (Charles Updergrove) and corporate execs (Phil Graviet, and John Marchitti). He then overtakes an international press center by disintegrating its news anchors (Nicole Spitale, Steve Brito, and Audra Wilson) and delivers a condemning speech to the remaining survivors on Earth. Kim has gone missing leaving Amanda a quivering husk. Thgil finds Kim in a cave where she’s being threatened at gunpoint by a deranged veteran (Jason James). Thgil cures the veteran by simply saying, “You are now free… of PTSD.” As Thgil prepares to depart for his homeworld Amanda and Kim are shot by Amanda’s abusive ex-husband (Mike Kelly). He resurrects both and erases the perpetrator out of existence. Corruption has been ended, the guilty have been punished, and all is right with the world again…

Pass Thru comes a decade-plus after Double Down (2005) and old Neil has actually managed to get worse. Breen has always worked with a skeleton crew but this rings especially true for Pass Thru where he mans every position himself. To the surprise of absolutely nobody it looks terrible in every department. A few aerial drone shots notwithstanding Pass Thru looks worse than the short features that Alex Chandon shot on home-video some two decades earlier. Everything that doesn’t feature Breen flying solo feels underrehearsed, hastily staged, and come across as needlessly messy. A lot feels and looks as if it was improvised on the fly. The camera work is shaky and uneven, and there isn’t a single good looking shot to be found anywhere. The editing, by Breen and John Mastrogiacomo, is probably some of the worst, even by his own very forgiving standards. Not every penny was on the screen, obviously. Oh, no. If there’s anything Neil’s known for it’s for elevating corner-cutting to an artform. There are discharged firearms, and explosions – but who needs pyrotechnics and weapon experts when you can superimpose cheap looking muzzle flashes and Windows 95 sprites? Why scout for locations that heighten the production value when you can just green-screen them? Why location scout at all? Just go into the Nevada desert and shoot to your heart’s content.

A Breen movie wouldn’t be complete without socio-political commentary, and Pass Thru primarily seems to be about immigration and the treatment of refugees. As with his other movies Neil’s an environmentalist and here he also pushes his agenda of sustainable, renewable energy and putting a stop to depleting Earth’s resources and destroying nature and biodioversity for shortsighted greed. Also worth noting is that Pass Thru marks the first time Neil choses for an ethnic minority love interest with Kathy Corpus. Not that she’s his typical lost Lenore, or that her romantic subplot is in any way developed or explored beyond its very, very basic contours. Even Breen’s romance with Joy Senn in I Am Here…. Now (2009) was written better. Apparently the romance with Jennifer Autry in Fateful Findings (2013) was a one-time thing. Amanda gets exactly one line (“We have to keep running! Your mother’s my sister. She was murdered. I swore to God I’d take care of you. You’re my niece. We have to keep running!”) that is supposed to pass for character development, and that’s it. Oh yeah, and then there’s that scene where Kathy throws a rock at Neil’s face. Priceless.

Speaking of Lohan School of Shaolin alumnus Kathy Corpus, a black belt in kung fu and tai chi. Kathy has a corpus to die for, and that corpus is a finely-toned weapon. Kathy’s an accomplished Las Vegas martial artist and stunt performer, and like Tara Macken she’s the kind of talent America has far too few of. Rene Perez would know what to do with her. Arrowstorm Entertainment would die to have someone like her. Hell, even Neil Johnson would put her to better use. Not Breen, though. No. All the master of traumatic arts allows poor Kathy to do is walk around aimlessly and shout her lines aggressively. The great majority of characters will never even be named – and none of them (not even the leads) will be given an arch. The B-plot features three kids, but only two of them are identified as “astronomers” in the credits with the third curiously missing. If the professor’s hospital room looks familiar that’s because it’s the same as in Fateful Findings (2013), the interiors for the other kids were probably the same house too. The medal-studded blue denim jacket from Double Down (2005) also makes an appearance. It’s entirely possible that the deranged war veteran is supposed to be a nod towards Aaron Brandt from Breen’s debut. Who knows? Surely a new cinematic low point has been reached when I Am Here…. Now (2009) and Fateful Findings (2013) can retroactively be considered the gold standard in all things Breen.

Suffice to say Pass Thru is stunningly bad. Not only from a technical standpoint, the writing is probably the most skeletal and thin it has ever been. You’d imagine that after ten years in the trenches Neil would pick up a book to better his craft, but no such thing seems to be the case. In 30 years Alex Chandon made a handful of shorts, and three full length features. Neil has made 5 movies in 10 years, and shows no apparent sign of improving on any front. Pass Thru actually manages to look worse than Alex Chandon’s rough-and-ready Chainsaw Scumfuck (1988). Why is Neil still filming on home video? Aren’t High-Definition and Red One (4k) cameras the de facto industry standard now? Neil has always been an auteur but Pass Thru is probably the most egregiously written of the bunch. The feeble and slim chance of Breen actually becoming better with time has been clearly refuted by this point. To see the comedy of errors known as Double Down (2005) was fun at first, but to see no progress over ten years later is something else. It makes you feel sorry for old Neil. Maybe he did lose his marbles making these no-budget paranormal epics in the blazing Nevada sun. Any way you slice it, Pass Thru is a cry for help. A mental health professional should review old Breen’s case. Right now.