Plot: journalist and detective run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.
Cry Havoc is the first installment in the newly-minted Havoc series, and the fourth in the original (and much larger) Playing with Dolls franchise. After three Playing with Dolls episodes writer-director Rene Perez has finally come to the realization that a slasher cannot work on a premise alone. Cry Havoc is what Playing with Dolls (2015) should have been some four years earlier. As a soft reboot of sorts Cry Havoc, for the first time in the series, actually attempts to tell a story. Cry Havoc ramps up the gore to Alex Chandon levels while increasing the boobage as if he’s trying to channel the spirit of the late Andy Sidaris. In truth it’s just an elaborate excuse to have a character utter the famous English military command, "Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war."
Investigative journalist Ellen Weaver (Emily Sweet) thinks she has happened upon the opportunity of a lifetime. She has been given the chance to interview an enigmatic and reclusive criminal mastermind who goes by the handle of The Voyeur. After a number of increasingly ridiculous precautionary measures Weaver is taken to his hidden compound by press liaison miss Wallace (Linda Bott). The Voyeur turns out to be none other than The Watcher, or Scopophilio (Richard Tyson) as he was once known. Weaver informs after the ethics and morality behind his skewed social experiments and the criterions by which he choses his “dolls” for psychotic masked serial killer Prisoner AYO-886 (J.D. Angstadt), these days simply referred to as Havoc, to “play with”. The Voyeur explains how he found Havoc and that these experiments in homicide aren’t his first. When The Voyeur questions her motives for accepting the interview Weaver suddenly finds the tables turned on her. Instead of becoming a famous reporter she awakens in Havoc’s woodlands. Around the same time a hard-boiled police detective (Robert Kovacs, as Robert Bronzi) has tracked down the whereabouts of his missing daughter (Spring Inés Peña) to a mysterious woodland area and cabin. In his search he comes across survivor Stina (Karin Brauns) but is too single-minded to safe her. The area is monitored and guarded by an extensive surveillance system and the well-equipped Echo private para-military force. Nor the Echo leader (J.D. Angstadt) and his troops or Havoc are going to let anybody trespass their domain without consequence.
For better or worse Cry Havoc seems to serve as a soft reboot of sorts. For starters it does away with the Playing with Dolls name and, perhaps more importantly, distills the basic outline of the previous three installments into a brief info dump (complete with recycled footage) to set up what should have been the backstory of the original Playing with Dolls (2015). If anything else, Cry Havoc is the most ambitious of the current Playing with Dolls episodes. Perez always was a good enough cinematographer and he has an eye for locations and composition. As such Cry Havoc is custodian to some of his best work yet. Everything from the camera set-ups, scene compositions, lighting, and the more mobile nature of various sequences; everything screams ambition. Perez still is in no hurry to detail the origins or Havoc or to humanize him, and as a barb-wired composite of Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, and Ogroff Havoc truly is about the only thing the Havoc franchise has going for it. Well, that and the attractive babes Rene Perez keeps finding to take their clothes off and die. Usually in that order.
For the first time in the series there seems to be a concerted effort on Perez’ part to flesh out, both literally and figuratively, what few characters there are. In record time he manages to get Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, and Nicole Renae Miracle out of their clothes. It feels almost as if Perez is angling and testing the waters for something completely else. Not that we would mind. At this point Rene seems to dabble almost exclusively in horror, westerns, thrillers, and various permutations thereof. His European fairytale adaptations have completely halted in favor of expanding upon his existing franchises. Given Rene’s predilection for high-octane action (which he is, admittedly, pretty good at staging and filming) and beautiful babes we’re still holding out hope that he will finally helm that long awaited LETHAL Ladies franchise derivate the world has been silently pining for. It would be the ideal excuse for Rene to bring back Alanna Forte, Elonda Seawood, Sierra Sherbundy, Nicole Renae Miracle, Spring Inés Peña, and beloved Perez veterans Irina Levadneva, Jenny Allford, Nadia Lanfranconi, Omnia Bixler, and Stormi Maya. Put them in small candy-colored bikinis and have them flaunt over-sized guns on sunbaked California beaches. If the late Andy Sidaris managed to perfect that formula in the eighties and nineties, there’s no reason why Rene wouldn’t be able to do the same in and for the current day and age.
The biggest change of guard in the last couple of years is J.D. Angstadt taking over from Charlie Glackin as Havoc. Glackin could be last seen as the masked killer in Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016), and remains within Perez’ stock company. Angstadt took over the character for Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) and there isn’t too much of a difference between Glackin’s earlier portrayals, and Angstadt’s current iteration. As this is a villain-centric series nobody’s really here for the other characters and they are merely here to facilitate the body count. The kills have become more creative and spectacularly bloody where and whenever possible. From Glackin’s almost spectral killer to Angstadt’s brute force hack-and-slash madman Havoc is the reason to stick around. A running joke of sorts that continues with Cry Havoc is that Perez remains adamant about not explaining why Havoc is so aghast and repulsed by the sight of his female victims’ exposed breasts. It’s probably something Freudian and one of the enduring mysteries of the Playing with Dolls franchise. That it continues to persist three sequels in remains unintentionally funny no matter how you slice it. Breasts are, of course, something no Perez feature is complete without so he invents plenty of excuses for his actresses to either undress or lose their tops whenever convenient.
It stands to reason that Rene Perez is a resourceful enough director who’s able to make much of what is, by all accounts, very little. While he isn’t the best writer around (he doesn’t work with scripts as much as he works around scenes and set-pieces we're told) he has an eye for visually arresting locales in his native California, and he’s able to continually work with hungry young actors and actresses. Over the last decade he has shown that he’s able to creatively work around budgetary limitations, and mask them where and whenever possible. There’s no question that Perez could possibly do greater things if he was able to work with a director of photography as Benjamin Combes, George Mooradian, or Howard Wexler. In the two years since Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) Oliver Müller and Marcus Koch have grown along Perez and the two worked on an array of high-profile productions since then. As disciples of Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero there’s no question as to why they are so in-demand when it comes to splattery prosthetic special effects. If only Rene could find a decent writing partner, and try his hand at some different genres (spy-action, cyberpunk, martial arts) and he’s well on his way (together with, say, Neil Johnson) of usurping the throne vacated by the late Albert Pyun. Prisoner AYO-886 or Havoc is one of Perez’ greatest creations. Four years, and two sequels, removed from the original Playing with Dolls (2015) sees Perez, now almost a decade deep into his career, actually showing some mild promise.
In all likelihood we haven’t seen the last of either Havoc or the Playing with Dolls series. Of all the things Rene Perez has done over the years this ongoing franchise has proven to be the most lucrative, by far. Given how Perez has been working with pennies and small change it makes you wonder what he could do on an actual budget. That Perez hasn’t yet been contracted by The Asylum, TomCat Films, Kings Of Horror, or similar low budget production/distribution companies remains a mystery as well. If Rene Perez has proven anything, besides his tenacity, over the last decade is that he’s able to work around whatever limitations are imposed on him. There’s a lot of dreck to be found in the slasher subgenre and it’s rare seeing a director this young grown that much in just a few years. To go from the non-committal Playing with Dolls (2015) to something as confident and straightforward as Cry Havoc is worthy of admiration. It’s not exactly a loving pastiche to stab-and-hack horror in the way Benjamin Combes’ Commando Ninja (2018) was to 80s action. No, Cry Havoc finally knows what it wants to be. It’s not pretty, and even by slasher standards it’s perfunctory, but at least it has an identity its predecessors so lacked. It might not be much, but it’s a beginning.