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Plot: homeless girl runs afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

At the crossroads of Albert Pyun, Andy Sidaris, and Jim Wynorski lies the ever-expanding cinematic oeuvre of Rene Perez. Perez has been writing, producing and editing his own low budget features since 2010 and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping anytime soon. Around these parts Rene has garnered a degree of infamy with his very loose adaptations of classic European fairytales. Next to his various western crossovers Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013), Prey for Death (2015), and From Hell to the Wild West (2017) his zombie franchise The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) has proven resilient. Perez shoots features by the old 42nd Street adage of blood, boobs, bullets, and babes. Death Kiss (2018) - his vigilante justice crime exploitationer modeled after Death Wish (1974) with professional Charles Bronson impersonator Robert Kovacs - is perhaps his most legendary. Before Death Kiss (2018) there was Playing with Dolls, Rene’s loving tribute to backwood horror, and the classic American slasher. Cabal (2020) was a good throwback to late seventies/early eighties exploitation, but conceptually didn't gel entirely. Playing with Dolls is the scion of Three on a Meathook (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and to a lesser degree Friday the 13th (1980). Rene knows his classics.

Things haven’t exactly been looking up for Ukrainian immigrant Cindy (Natasha Blasick). In short order her roommate left taking with her all belongings, furniture and appliances from their apartment, Cindy is fired from her job and evicted by her landlord (John Welsh) who tries to extort sexual favors from her to make up for the rent she’s still due. Out of the blue Cindy receives a phonecall from a lawyer (Allisun Sturges) inquiring whether she would be interested in a month-long housesitting job for a hefty sum of money. Thinking her luck has finally turned Cindy heads out unprepared to the agreed-upon rendez-vous point to meet her employer. There she runs into a creepy farmer (John Scuderi) before a delegation takes her deep into the densely forested woodlands to a luxurious log cabin far away from civilization. It never dawns on Cindy that the sudden appearance of a high-paying job and a working-space cut off from civilization with no transportation, or communication is not in the least a bit sketchy. Alas, such blissfully aware epiphanies will not be forthcoming until it is late. Too late, at any rate. Isolated and bored out of her skull Cindy drowns herself in hard liquor and modeling high-end fashion to kill time…

What she doesn’t realize is she has become the latest victim in a social experiment engineered by, and for the vicarious pleasures of, mysterious benefactor Scopophilio (Richard Tyson). Not only has he facilitated the release of psychotic masked serial killer Prisoner AYO-886 (Charlie Glackin) but he has chosen her to be the next “doll” for the deranged madman to “play with”. On the side Scopophilio (obviously derived from scopophilia, or the Latin term for voyeurism) has his assistant Trudy (Marilyn Robrahm) kidnap attractive young women for his personal gratification the most recent victim (Elonda Seawood) has been kept in a perpetually drugged state. Scopophilio somehow is able to steer Prisoner AYO-886’s actions by voice commands. The woodland area and cabin are monitored by an extensive surveillance system and the perimeter is guarded by a well-equipped private para-military force headed up by an unstable commando (Sean Story). Lounging out in the hot tub one day Cindy meets battered and blooded police officer Burnett (David A. Lockhart) who has been tracking the murderer since a string of unexplained disappearances in Lithuania. It’s only a question of who will get to them first; Prisoner AYO-886 or the para-military forces?

A better writer had explored all the interesting themes that Perez briefly glances upon and then ignores for the rest of the feature. Playing with Dolls, either by design or by sheer dumb luck, touches upon the ever-widening divide between the rich and the poor, the desperation that poverty drives people into, the addiction to alcohol and related substances to which it inevitably leads and the social isolation that it enables. This could have been about the journey of a young woman overcoming great personal shortcomings and less than fortunate circumstances to learn something important about herself through a traumatic experience in the deep woods. Instead Playing with Dolls seems mostly concerned with out of nowhere action scenes, plodding and obvious padding that has Natasha Blasick in a three-minute montage showing off various clothes and moments later has her dancing around the cabin in a drunken stupor.

Blasick, for all intents and purposes, seems to play a part probably intended for Irena Levadneva but she never acted again after Little Red Riding Hood (2016). It opens with sometime Perez muse (and bootylicious swimsuit model) Alanna Forte being chased through a snowclad woodland before ending up bound and gagged and losing a nipple. An opening from which we can deduce that Perez has either seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Somehow it doesn’t turn into a throwback to the deranged excesses of the golden age of grindhouse slashers of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 80s. Forte gets naked in more Rene Perez features but in her screen debut Alanna’s character (if it can be called that) doesn’t even get so much as a name, let alone a backstory of some kind. Charlie Glackin is at his best when he can non-verbally act as a hulking and blunt instrument of wanton dismemberment and death. For reasons that will never be explained, Prisoner AYO-886 is prone to flashes of confusion and reluctance to kill as if he's suddenly burdened by a consciousness or a humanity.

Perez has expressed that he was aiming to avoid the usual slasher conventions, and that he does. For the most part Playing with Dolls is filmed as a ghost horror. It’s the sort of production that the Camp Blood (1999-2020) nonology would be if it ever got its collective wits together (which it never did). As such Playing with Dolls oozes with atmosphere like no other. To call this a fantastique would be a misnomer but it operates on the same dream-logic. Natasha Blasick and Forte both take their clothes off. The sexual undercurrent to some of Prisoner AYO-886’s actions with sharp-edged utensils and the way Perez lovingly glides his camera across and over the minimally clad or disrobed bodies of Forte and Blasick is something straight out of a Jim Wynorski flick. There are so many instances where Perez lets his camera glide over Natasha Blasick’s rear that you’d swear Tinto Brass was involved with the production. Not that we’d blame Perez for getting as much mileage out of Blasick’s gloriously well-formed posterior as he does, it’s probably her most beloved asset. What’s painfully clear even this early on is that not the cast, not the plot or the special effects drive Perez’ productions but the truly scenic locations he chooses. To his credit the way Rene Perez photographs the California woodlands is absolutely lyrical and it’s a crying shame that Rene later transformed Playing with Dolls in exactly what he avoided here. Once Playing with Dolls was extended into a franchise it did become a standard slasher. Perez has an eye for locations, striking visuals, and makes the most of what is by all accounts very little. He would probably make an absolute killing at directing moderate budget music videos if given the opportunity.

Playing with Dolls is the kind of slasher that doesn’t slash, where characters are so underwritten and static that they very well might not exist at all, and where the spooky locations and exteriors tell more of a story than the production they’re appearing in. The fight choreography and action direction aren’t much to write home about and the amount of CGI bloodsplatters are as fake as they are obvious. How Playing with Dolls would have benefited from old-fashioned practical – and prosthetic effects work. The synth score is hokey for the most part, completely unfitting at worst and makes one long for the likes of Anthony Riparetti, Gary Stockdale, Dave Andrews, Thomas Cappeau, or Joel Goldsmith. About the only thing that Playing with Dolls gets right is the design of Prisoner AYO-886. He is a hulking monstrosity of a man with the same fashion sense as Jason Voorhees and a Leatherface-styled dead skin mask complete with Frankensteinian steel enforcements and barb wire decorations. The biggest star next to the wonderful Californian landscapes and the assorted naked breasts of the female cast is Richard Tyson from Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), the Farelly brothers’ comedy hit There’s Something About Mary (1998), Battlefield Earth (2000), and Black Hawk Down (2001). As much as he has an eye for scenic beauty Perez’ taste in women is equally impeccable as between Alanna Forte, Natasha Blasick and Elonda Seawood there’s something for everybody.

We have a sneaking suspicion that Rene Perez would probably fare well doing an Andy Sidaris styled spy-action romp with girls in candy-colored bikinis and oversized explosions. In fact we’re surprised that, so far, he has decided to stay within the horror, action, science fiction and fantastic realms thus far. For one we’d love to see a fun-loving action romp with the likes of Irena Levadneva, Jenny Allford, Alanna Forte, Elonda Seawood, Stormi Maya, and Natasha Blasick. Or at the very least a Jean Rollin or José Ramon Larraz inspired female vampire romp where Perez’ minimalism to narrative and production is actually a benefit. Perez would be the ideal candidate to carry on the cinematic legacy of Andy and Christopher Drew Sidaris and their LETHAL Ladies. In fact his recent Death Kiss (2018) was such a true to form imitation of Death Wish (1974) that it came replete with Charles Bronson lookalike Robert Kovacs. History has proven that Perez would get better with time and subsequent Playing with Dolls installments would be much more violent, gruesome, and full of practical effects work. Alex Chandon is generally better at this sort of thing, but Playing with Dolls does not tend to grate on the nerves as much as his batshit insane reworkings of European fairytales. If you are prepared to meet the Perez oeuvre halfway it can be surprisingly entertaining, actually.

Plot: novelist vows to end government and corporate corruption.

Staggeringly incompetent on just about every level, impenetrable for the uninitiated, jarringly disjointed for the bad cinema aficionado, and incomprehensible for everybody else Fateful Findings is Neil Breen’s undiluted masterpiece. Breen flabbergasted the world with Double Down (2005) and I Am Here…. Now (2009) – and probably not in the way he intended or imagined. Not since Black Magic Rites (1973) and Ogroff (1983) was something so divorced from reality, so fantastically misguided, so life-affirmingly riveting in its complete and utter direness. If Double Down (2005) offered a mere glimpse into the fractured psyche of a man with a tenuous grip on sanity; then Fateful Findings is where old Neil went gloriously off the deep end. In other words, this is anything and everything you’d want out of a Breen production. Christian fringe cinema has appointed its own Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: David A.R. White, Geovanni Molina, Kirk Cameron, and Neil Breen. Fateful Findings is a transcendental, transformative work loaded to the gill with just about every dell of insanity and one that Breen has had trouble living up to ever since.

His modest body of work might not seem very daunting but the sheer concentration of awful within such a small repertoire has led to a veritable cult worship of his work. Like all true gems enshrined in the pantheon of bad moviedom the power lies not so much in the number of productions that Neil Breen has amassed, but that each and every feature of his defies conventional criticism by their inherent weirdness. As such, Fateful Findings is the third of his religious-patriotic-jingoistic supernatural thrillers and his most ambitious (or unhinged) by a wide margin. Like I Am Here…. Now (2009) before it this one too is imbued with New Age mysticism which might, or might not, be Native American in nature. Like a modern day David L. Hewitt Las Vegas’ most famous former realtor and architect turned Christian geek green-Marxist is dangerously enthusiast and wholly unencumbered by his lack of talent in every department. Breen is a man with a plan, which should strike fear into the hearts of anyone. As always, nothing is ever that simple and as with everything there’s always more than meets the eye.

One day eight-year-olds Dylan (Jack Batoni) and Leah (Brianna Borden) discover a mushroom next to the base of a tree in an open field. The mushroom turns into a jewelry box containing a black token and a few beads. Dylan takes the token and Leah rearranges the beads into a bracelet. The box is buried and changes back into a mushroom. “It’s a magical day!”, they exclaim and as fate would have it the two are separated as Leah moves to another state. Several decades pass and Dylan (Neil Breen) is now an author in talks with his publisher about commencing preparations for his eagerly awaited second novel. He holds an MA in computer science and living with him is his painkiller addicted girlfriend Emily (Klara Landrat). Coming home Dylan is hit by an unmarked Rolls-Royce, and rushed to the hospital where he’s placed under the care of Dr. Rosen (David Scott). Both Emily and his friend Jim (David Silva) visit him in the hospital. Periodically he’s checked up upon by the svelte head of neurology. There Dylan, holding on to his black token, miraculously heals at a record pace. For no discernible reason he unplugs his IVs and waggles home against medical advice.

The situation in the household of his next-door neighbour Jim doesn’t seem much better. Things have been steadily getting worse with his girlfriend Amy (Victoria Viveiros, as Victoria Valene). She works an emotionally - and financially unrewarding job at the bank and they are amidst something of a dry spell. To take his mind off things Jim is seemingly permanently drunk whenever he’s not feverishly working on restoring his prized 1985 Ferrari Testarossa. Caught like a deer in the headlights in that maelstrom of chaos and turmoil is their underage stepdaughter Aly (Danielle Andrade). Meanwhile, Dylan develops supernatural powers such as telekinesis and teleportation at the cost of headaches, narcoleptic seizures, and haunting dreams of a mysterious book. Instead of working on a new novel he decides to dedicate his time to hacking into heavily-protected domestic and international government – and corporate databases to expose the corruption, greed, and fraud that has been allowed to run rampant. Because he’s so preoccupied with his exposé Emily suspects him of having an affair. To help Jim and Amy get out of their impasse Emily throws a dinner party house where nubile Aly decides to throw herself at Dylan near his pool and then again at the tub, but he wards off her advances. At the follow-up barbecue at his house Dylan discovers that his neurologist is none other than his childhood sweetheart Leah (Jennifer Autry). Instead of providing for him and his girlfriend Dylan indulges his hacking hobby and continues to see Leah on the side. This in turn pushes Emily, already struggling with a prescription drugs addiction and junkie lifestyle, further into depression.

To help him cope with the pressure of writing a new novel Dylan sees psychotherapist David S. Lee (John Henry Hoffman) who continues to prescribe him medication. He goes to see Dr. Andra (Gloria Hoffman) to get a second opinion and finds himself enthralled by her flowery, fortune-cookie spiritualist platitudes. Around this time Emily succumbs to her dependency and ODs whereas Amy, tired of their constant bickering and spurning of unwanted sexual advances, kills Jim in cold blood and stages it as a suicide. Aly is witness to the scene and, understandably, confides in Dylan. With Emily no longer a concern Dylan is free to romantically pursue Leah. As Dylan amasses evidence to make his case the powers-that-be facilitate the kidnapping of Leah by a shady figure (Mark Bettencort), but it’s nothing the near god-like Dylan can’t handle. In a televised Washington D.C. press conference Dylan bravely names the opposition and their numerous crimes against mankind’s best interests. During the press conference a last-minute, quickly thrown together assassination is attempted but it’s summarily thwarted by Dylan’s supernatural powers and senses. One by one politicians, Wall Street bankers, insurers, and judiciary confess to their assorted crimes and commit suicide in public. Happily reunited with the love of his life the two walk off hand in hand into the sunset. Corruption has been ended, the guilty have been punished, and Dylan has been reunited with his lost Lenore. Everything is right with the world again…

As expected all the Breen-isms are here: First, there’s the crude, non-specific socio-political commentary aimed squarely at rampant government corruption and greed in the corporate business world, none of which is ever meaningfully explored. There’s the obligatory second act melodramatic exclamation (“I can’t believe you committed suicide!” and “no more books!” here). All of that is neatly spiced up by a thick layer of vague conspiratorial nonsense, and a complete lack of action of any kind. Just like in Double Down (2005) there’s Breen playing an every-man (with a pronounced interest in computer science) turned into a superpowered messianic Christ-like savior by some undefined divine providence to fight the many evils in the world; as well as his penchant for casting well-endowed, permanently braless blonde - and brunette women half his age.

In Fateful Findings we have Klara Landrat, Jennifer Autry, Victoria Viveiros, and Danielle Andrade who all look like they should, or will be, in Rene Perez movies. Or at least in something from either The Asylum or TomCat Films. Old Neil likes busty blonde Valley girls as much as the late Russ Meyer, Andy Sidaris, Cirio H. Santiago, and Jim Wynorski. It wouldn’t be a Neil Breen spectacular if there wasn’t any commentary on a big relevant social issue. In Double Down (2005) Neil expressed his obvious concern over how American society views and treats the mentally ill and the way America handles the psychological well-being of its citizenry. I Am Here.… Now (2009) was about poverty, prostitution, and the mounting energy crisis. It pushed a commendable environmentalist agenda of sustainable, renewable energy. Fateful Findings abandons that thread and concerns itself with pharma culture, substance abuse/dependency, and suicide instead. As far as “controversial” subject matter and “thought-provoking” no-budget filmmaking goes, Breen is the absolute master.

Believe it or not, Fateful Findings is actually a marked improvement over his prior two outings and his opus magnum. John Mastrogiacomo was involved merely as a camera man yet without a director of photography Breen somehow managed to line up a few idyllic shots of the Las Vegas cityscape and the Nevada desert. Old Neil never hid his appreciation and love for the shapes and curves of the female form. A form he isn’t afraid of showing (Breen apparently has a kink for sideboob and bare feet), but he always does so in a perfectly audience-friendly PG-13 manner. He’s exploitative enough to have them braless, with their busts nearly spilling out of their blouses, and/or have liquid spilled on translucent fabric. Yet the money shot remains curiously absent. Instead when his women appear topless or nude they do so with their backs modestly to the camera. This would be understandable had any of these women been name-actresses, but that’s far from the case. To compensate for the apparent lack of bare breasts (Breen needs to take lessons from Jim Wynorski and Rene Perez) there are the obligatory auteur butt shots, but even they would eventually (and thankfully) dissipate. The special effects work is cruddy, the editing is shoddy, the audio wobbly - but the pacing has improved. As far as casting goes Breen never quite assembled an host of nobodies like this again.

Fateful Findings has enough intersecting storylines to fill three movies. We’d be interested in seeing the Closer (2004) inspired romantic drama with Klara Landrat and Victoria Viveiros and their respective significant others, or the proxy Swimming Pool (2003) with Danielle Andrade as the Ludivine Sagnier character and Breen standing in for Charlotte Rampling. Andrade is no Sagnier, and unlike her French counterpart in the François Ozon film, she won’t be flaunting her breasts either. Then there’s the espionage thriller with a novelist being hounded by government spooks after happening upon a worldwide political conspiracy of corruption and fraud. The latter of which is really what Breen likes to focus on. For the most part however Fateful Findings is content to follow the general contours of Jon Turteltaub’s Phenomenon (1996) (with John Travolta).

Compared to the sheer lunacy and opaque mysticism of Double Down (2005) and proselytizing of I Am Here…. Now (2009), Fateful Findings is relatively grounded in its surrealism. Which doesn’t mean it’s any less batshit insane. It doesn’t make a lick of sense at the best of times and will be nigh on inaccessible to anybody but the staunchest and most resilient of bad movie fans. As a director/writer and auteur Neil Breen remains truly unparallelled. He truly is appaled by political – and government malfeasance, fascinated with mysticism and the paranormal; whether they come in the form of enchanted rocks or top-heavy, clothing-averse women. Breen feverishly weaves action, drama, social commentary, and the paranormal like no other. He does so in such a disjointed fashion that hitherto hasn’t been seen before – or ever again. Neil truly is boldly going where no one has gone before, and seems to have lost both his marbles and his much of his composure along the way. That, or he’s having one hell of a midlife crisis. At this point it could be either…