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Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017)

Plot: vacationers run afoul of escaped masked serial murderer.

It’s been a strange and confusing journey going from the barely there slashing of Playing with Dolls (2015) to the functional competence of Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016) only to arrive at the utterly minimalist and brutally utilitarian Playing with Dolls: Havoc. Rene Perez is a director with authorial intentions, dangerous enthusiasm, but rarely the means to realize his visions. Since debuting in 2010 Perez has become something of a successor to Albert Pyun as he churns out several micro budget epics every year. Along with The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) his Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise has proven resilient despite its rampant banality and overall redundancy. None of the installments are particularly strong by any metric one chooses to employ and it’s anybody’s guess why Rene chose this to expand upon. After Playing with Dolls: Havoc the ongoing franchise was duly rebranded to the much shorter Havoc with the next sequel simply dubbed Cry Havoc (2019) arriving a scant two years later.

Under any of the usual circumstances the slasher is the easiest of horror subgenres to produce and direct. In its most typical and standardized form there’s little that can go wrong, although that occasionally does happen as Dutch-Belgian slasher Intensive Care (1991) went on to prove so historically and catastrophically. Rene Perez always stacks his movies with beautiful women and compared to the surrounding entries the women in Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) are not as pneumatically-enhanced as they usually are. Nicole Stark, Wilma Elles, and Malorie Glavan (a poor man’s Melissa McCarthy) all are normally proportioned and Glavan is the rare plus size actress in Perez stock company. A nice change of pace, all things considered. This movie’s prerequisite ditzy blonde is Playboy Croatia and Venezuela Playmate (October, 2015) and Penthouse Pet of the Month (March, 2022) Stormi Maya (not sporting her usual aphro puff) who – in tradition of Alanna Forte and Elonda Seawood before her – gets to show off her impressive fake ass titties. Like Russ Meyer, Pete Walker, Andy Sidaris, and Jim Wynorski before him Rene Perez loves large breasted women, especially if they are platinum blondes. Any day now we’re expecting Rene to helm that long awaited LETHAL Ladies derivate (one we’d very much would like to see) with roles for Forte, Seawood, Maya, and other assorted bosomy Perez babes.

Platinum blonde Annabelle (Stormi Maya) follows clues and is rewarded with stacks of money until she reaches her destination point. There she’s attacked by known mass murderer Prisoner AYO-886 (J.D. Angstadt) who the Echo para-military unit securing the caves simply refer to as Havoc. As Havoc breaks free from his chains and escapes into the densely forested region that the caves are in the soldiers embark on a perilous quest to contain the situation to the best of their ability. Much of which will prove fatal. Meanwhile married couple Sara Curry (Nicole Stark) and her husband Timothy (Kyle Clarke) have retreated back to the country to spent a romantic weekend at their remote luxury cabin. Coming along are maintenance man Bob (John Scuderi) and housekeeper Alicia (Malorie Glavan). In another part of town Mia (Wilma Elles, as Jade Ellis) is experiencing car trouble and soon finds the vehicle and herself stranded near the cabin. Mia’s unexpected intrusion brings to light long simmering problems in the couple’s marriage and before long all three are at each other’s throat. What they don’t know is that Havoc has escaped into the nearby woods and soon will be at theirs…

As before the opening setpiece has nothing to do with, or will have no bearing on, everything that follows, nor will it ever be referenced again for that matter. While Playing with Dolls: Havoc is by far the most technically solid entry thus far - even if it takes a few liberties with what little previous two episodes took ages to establish – there’s plenty of wasted potential abound. Prisoner AYO-886 or Havoc has been reduced to a brute, mute force of nature and this chapter would probably have been far more effective as a siege horror movie in tradition of Night of the Living Dead (1968) or The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). The sense of isolation is palatable and while the occupants of the cabin do their fair share of bickering amongst themselves, it’s never the reason why they end up butchered in short order by Havoc. Havoc still has the tendency to become practically a ghost whenever the script paints itself in a corner. Moreover Perez’ screenplay categorically refuses to offer any explanation for anything. Why hasn’t law enforcement gotten wise to the case yet? Why does nobody come looking for any of the previous victims? Who is Havoc and why does he kill? By what criterions does Havoc let his victims live? What became of or happened to the elderly Dane that owned the cabin in the original? Even by lowly American slasher standards Playing with Dolls: Havoc has treacherously little story. On the plus side, it’s also the first Playing with Dolls chapter wherein Richard Tyson and Marilyn Robrahm are unaccounted for. His Scopophilio is never mentioned by name, but only referred to as “the master”. Probably for the better too as Perez had no interest in developing said subplot further as it slowly started bogging the franchise down.

The only thing besides Stormi Maya (and her willingness to take her top off) that Playing with Dolls: Havoc has going for it is the special effects work from Marcus Koch and Oliver Poser (as Oliver Müller). Koch and Poser provide mostly gratuitous fountains of blood and even a few admittedly good looking prosthetic effects. Most of it will probably appeal to fans of masters of gore Olaf Ittenbach, Andreas Schnaas, and Alex Chandon. Stormi Maya Jellison is the third curvy African-American girl (preceded by Alanna Forte in tbe original and Elonda Seawood in the first sequel) in as many episodes and like the other characters here her cold opportunist doesn’t remotely deserve to die as gruesomely and bloodily as they inevitably all do. Of all the Playing with Dolls episodes up until this point this set of characters was by far the most sympathetic.

The dismantling of the victims takes a turn for the creative while Perez’ writing remains as thin as always and his direction finally seems to approach what can be cautiously called competent. Perez could probably built a steady career with either The Asylum or TomCat Films and at this point it would be interesting for him to try his hand at different genres. The whole jilted lovers main plot is something out of a classic gothic horror and Nicole Stark would have been stellar as a Barbara Steele surrogate. With access to Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley the plot would have worked as a Castle Of Blood (1964) or Nightmare Castle (1965) reworking, either as a period piece or in a contemporary setting. Perez would be the ideal candidate to give Blood Of the Virgins (1967), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) or Nude For Satan (1974) a much-needed make-over.

You have admire the tenacity and sheer force of will that Rene Perez puts into each and every one of his mini-epics. Like Albert Pyun before him Perez is never shy about imitating a popular brand or doing his own demented take on an established formula. Perez had the cojones to helm Death Kiss (2018) and The Punished (2018), his take on Death Wish (1974, 2018) and The Punisher (1989, 2004), respectively. In all honesty, we tend to like Perez’ take on classic European fairytales far more than the rest of his repertoire at this point. The Wishing Forest (2018) seems to be the halfway point between his fairtytale yarns and Playing with Dolls. While working on the fringes of cinema can have its benefits there’s more than enough precedent in America alone that a lack of budget not necessarily precludes a lack of talent and resourcefulness. Lloyd Lee Barnett’s Ninja Apocalypse (2014) was able to do a lot with very little and Benjamin Combes’ Commando Ninja (2018) not only was the perfect throwback to over-the-top 80s action, what it lacked in budget it made up in sheer inventiveness and enthusiasm. Neither of which Playing with Dolls has displayed three episodes in. There’s not many ways to do a slasher wrong, but Rene Perez has apparently done just that. If Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust (2016) had a pulse, then Playing with Dolls: Havoc sees Perez’ beast lumbering around with blood on its hands and murder on its mind.