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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: Charlie Case is a champion gymnast and a spy. Catch her if you can.

Hawaiian trash specialist Albert Pyun was never below stretching budgets, cutting corners were he could, and he had an affinity for making up projects on the spot. He had learned an important lesson on The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) and Cyborg (1989): costumes, sets, props, and production design – all that stuff costs money. Why not set the action in a near-future where practically no extra work was required? Pyun was right on the money as the home video success of Nemesis (1992) would prove, and his follow-up Arcade (1993) was actually pretty ahead of its time. The big project Pyun was working on at the time was the cyberpunk/martial arts hybrid Heatseeker (1995). As these things tend to go, pre-production had been underway for some time but the project stalled for unknown reasons (in all likelihood having to do with money). Not one to sit around old Al packed up his cameras and shot one (or two) movies on the producers’ dime for as long as principal photography on Heatseeker (1995) was delayed. And so it was that Pyun shot Hong Kong 97 (1994) and Spitfire on the downtime. Lo and behold, thus the world got three Pyun romps for the price of one.

Giving credit where it is due old Al had an eye for spotting talent. He casted the practically unknown Borovnisa Blervaque in Nemesis (1992); the young, spunky and obviously talented Megan Ward in his Arcade (1993), and Spitfire (no idea what the title has to do with anything, but just roll with it) would be the star-making vehicle for Kristie Phillips. And who was miss Phillips? She was one of the most visible and publicized gymnasts in the mid-1980s. Kristie was on the cover of Sports Illustrated (September 1, 1986), crowned the 1987 senior U.S. National Champion, and on the fastlane to become one of the front-runners for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. In short, Albert had found his star. Phillips was disciplined, flexible, and looked good in a leotard. Pyun would later introduce the world to Jill Pearce and Kimberly Warren with his Mean Guns (1997) and the ill-fated Blast (1997). The only thing needed now was a script. So Pyun, David Yorkin, and Christopher Borkgren set to outlining a halfway coherent premise on whatever napkins and empty pizza boxes that were lying around the office. That it just so happened to resemble Gymkata (1985) was purely coincidental, no doubt. Armed with something resembling a screenplay and his usual warm bodies filming began. The most creative thing about Spitfire is the Saul Bass inspired credit montage with Tina Cote furthering the idea that this really was supposed to be a James Bond knock-off.

In a luxurious resort philandering British secret agent Richard Charles (Lance Henriksen) has been spending quality time in the bedroom with his former paramour and CIA operative Amanda Case (Debra Jo Fondren). After the obligatory thrusting and fondling Case entrusts him with Ukrainian missile codes and bestows him with the knowledge that he has a daughter. The two are ambushed by Soviet spy Carla Davis (Sarah Douglas) and her henchmen (Robert Patrick and Brion James). Amanda ends up taking a bullet while Charles manages to escape with his jetpack. Meanwhile in Rome, Italy gymnast and martial arts enthusiast Charlie Case (Kristie Phillips) and drunken and disgraced reporter Rex Beechum (Tim Thomerson) both are at the sports complex. She’s preparing for the semi-finals in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the world finals in Athens, Greece and he’s looking for the next big scoop. After the first round Charlie happens to see Richard surrender to Soviet spies and in the confusion the spy is able to slip a disc containing nuclear launch codes in her bag. Believing to have witnessed an exchange of steroids Beechum pesters Charlie on the particulars. With the clock ticking the high-kicking hottie and the permanently drunk reporter must stay out of the clutches of enemy operatives, obtain a key with help of Charlie’s spy half-brother Alain (Simon Poland), deliver them to her other half-brother Chan in Hong Kong, and rescue her father from the encroaching Soviet spies. On top of all that Charlie and Rex have to remain on schedule to partake in the tournaments in Malaysia and Greece.

As for the rest of the cast outside of Lance Henriksen and Kristie Phillips the usual suspects are all here. Tim Thomerson, Brion James, Chad Stahelski, and Simon Poland all were Pyun regulars. The biggest names were probably Robert Patrick and Playmate of the Month (September, 1977) and Playmate Of the Year 1978 Debra Jo Fondren. After his stint with Cirio H. Santiago in the Philippines Patrick had landed a pair of high-profile appearances with smaller and bigger roles in Die Hard 2 (1990) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Apparently those weren’t enough to establish him as an A-lister and before long Robert found himself right back in the low budget wasteland from whence he came and now at the mercy of Albert Pyun. Chad Stahelski has had a career revival in recent years as a director with the John Wick franchise. Henriksen is, of course, a living monument who has appeared in as many classics as in just as many low budget trash spectaculars. And then there’s Tina Cote. Cote was something of a muse for Pyun, and here she merely can be seen in the credit montage. The entire thing does sort of brings up the one lingering question: why was there never a Tina Cote spy-action romp? Albert obviously loved filming her. Imagine what a James Bond imitation with Cote could have been, especially with that tiny black number she was wearing in Mean Guns (1997) and how Pyun loved filming her in that.

When Al’s on fire, he truly is the master of low budget action. When Al’s on point he does low budget action better than anyone else, but even in 1995 it was clear that those occassions had become the exception rather than the rule. Hong Kong 97 (1994) had the good fortune of being set in Hong Kong and starring Ming-Na Wen and Spitfire was nothing but a little timewaster and diversion before Al could commence work on the thing he was actually invested and interested in doing, Heatseeker (1995). When it comes right down to it Hong Kong 97 (1994) and Spitfire are two sides of the same coin. Not only do they share similar plots, cast, and locations – it’s almost as if either could act as a subplot or background story for the other. The action direction is actually pretty good and the choreography is better than usual with Pyun. Faint praise as it may be, but there’s actually a figment of a good idea in Spitfire. For reasons only known to old Al he never saw it fit either revisit Spitfire or extend it into a franchise, either with Phillips or without, despite all the potential the concept held. Nemesis (1992) was a minor hit on home video, and that somehow spawned four sequels, three of which Pyun directed. Why waste something as exciting as a globe-trotting gymnast / super spy fighting baddies of any stripe. No, somehow Heatseeker (1995) was the priority. No wonder Kristie Phillips never acted again.

It all becomes even more the infuriating considering the depths that Pyun was in. The mid-nineties hardly were his best time. The avalanche of Nemesis sequels were that… sequels – and they did everything but live up to the promise of the Hong Kong inspired original. By 1995 Pyun was no longer able to ride the coattails of Cyborg (1989) and The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982). Arcade (1993) was an inspired little cyberpunk ditty obviously meant to capitalize on the virtual reality craze following The Lawnmower Man (1992), but that was two years ago. As near as we can tell Pyun was in dire straits and in desperate need of a hit. It probably didn’t help that he was a year away from the disastrous Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996). Not only did it kill the career of Natasha Henstridge in an instant, it also was subject to extensive studio-mandated re-writes/re-shoots. If that weren’t bad enough, said re-shoots failed not only to improve the main feature, they also spawned Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) as a by-product. More than anything else Spitfire was a missed opportunity. There was a renewed interest in James Bond with the release of GoldenEye (1995), and while old Al usually could be counted upon to strike the iron while it’s hot, he didn’t do so here. Even without Lance Henriksen (and/or a new lead actress) Spitfire begged to be further explored and expanded upon. For shame, Albert, for shame.