A Grindhouse Throwback: A Review of ‘Raze’

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Raze Movie PosterTitle: Raze

Production: Cinipix, Cosmic Toast Studios, Quincy Pictures

Distribution: IFC Midnight

Director: Josh C. Waller

Writers: Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage, and Josh C. Waller

Release: On DVD May 20, 2014

Rated: R for strong, brutal violence throughout and language

Genre: Grindhouse action

Runtime: 87 Minutes

Cast: Zoë Bell, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms, Doug Jones, and Sherilyn Finn

The premise of Raze is rather simple and harkens back to plenty of exploitation films of the past: a group of fighters have to battle to the death in order for a single winner to take home the purse or, in many cases, gain their freedom. Hell, we don’t even to have to look back to the 1970s for these kinds of flicks as The Hunger Games is a prime example of this sort of modern age gladiatorial set up. Raze changes the format a touch by presenting a group of women who have been kidnapped by a mysterious husband and wife team (and their cronies) to take part in a years old, underground televised battle to the death.

I suppose this must be what folks on the deep web watch on their own twisted version of YouTube…

Raze Still #1Zoë Bell portrays Sabrina, who makes the mistake of pursuing an ill-advised lusty and drunken one night stand. She and forty nine other female combatants seem to have fallen into the same trap, through the same means, and now finds herself forced to engage in hand to hand combat with fellow victims. Although the plot device doesn’t receive as much treatment as it should have, the key motivator for these women to kill each other isn’t simply for their own survival but that of their loved ones as well; don’t fight and those who mean the most to each woman will be assassinated.

Alright kids, we go mainly spoiler free here on out.

Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn play the aforementioned married couple with some creepy aplomb. While we’re never sure why they might be instigating all of this madness, outside of some references that this fatal game has been passed down through the family for years, whenever they appear onscreen to snidely comment on the failings of the victims the viewer can’t help to have an itching to cave in their faces with a well-placed punch. It’s possible the couple subscribe to a Jack the Ripper mentality, since it seems the captives have been wrangled in by engaging in risky sex, that their mindset is these women are whores in the first place and whores should die I guess.

Raze Still #2As a quick sidenote, if anyone ever decides to put the life of filmmaker John Waters on celluloid – ala Ed Wood – they really don’t have to look any further for the title role than Doug Jones; for a change Jones isn’t overlaid with CGI or prosthetics and I swear I kept picturing him with a pencil mustache. Jones does a nice job but I swear I just couldn’t shake seeing him as Waters every time he popped up.

Raze bogs down a bit as much of its runtime is filled with somewhat monotonous woman on woman ass kickings, introduced as title cards announcing the combatants. While most of the fights do introduce some additional minor elements to the story it does get to the point where viewers, like me, might start to feel uncomfortable with yet another woman beating someone to death. I will mention the title cards eventually lead to a clever gag toward the end; this isn’t a film filled with levity or laughs but the final title card led me to one of those “Hell yeah!” sort of chuckles.

While there’s loads of violence, it never boils down into an assault on your senses with grue and gore simply because it can. Much of the blood spilt is rather subdued for a movie of this ilk and, even though this is certainly a movie which would have easily fit a midnight movie bill when I was in high school, I’m sure other reviewers will say the violence is gratuitous but I think I’ll disagree there; I’ve seen plenty of flicks (which don’t get reviews around here) that have nearly stomach churning levels of what I consider gratuitous violence and splatter.

Raze Still #3To this point the reader might wonder why I’m not going to rake Raze over the coals and give it a review score along the lines of a film like Ooga Boonga but there’s a lot going on with Raze that a ton of craptastic, straight to video, snuff pornish titles don’t; namely the cinematography and acting separate Raze from the pack.

Josh C. Waller directs Raze as if this were a film and not simply a fast buck proposition to score his next bag of coke. Truth be told, some of the crap independent distributors send my way leads me to believe those involved took on the project as a way to feed a drug habit (as opposed to providing some sort of entertainment) so I’m not kidding here. The fight sequences are nicely choreographed and, while there are some moments where it’s obvious we’re watching a film from a first time director, it’s obvious Waller takes much of his inspiration from Quentin Tarantino and the directors Tarantino admires. I’ll bet Zoë Bell also used her years of stunt experience to bear on the fight sequences as well in order to make Waller’s task that much easier.

The premise certainly isn’t anything new but the performances help raise Raze (heh…heh…) to a level you might not expect for the usual midnight/exploitation film. Whereas Jones and Fenn provide their own bizarre turn and Rachel Nichols (Jamie) and Tracie Thoms (Teresa) don’t exceedingly stumble, the real star turn here is Zoë Bell. The New Zealand born actress/stunt woman has done a wonderful job of breaking out of the near obscurity of stunt work the past few years with roles in Death Proof, Whip It, and numerous television appearances but this is the first time I’m aware she takes on the main role in a film.

Raze Still #5I’m happy to say Bell may have been spinning her wheels during her long tenure as a stunt woman because she shows some acting chops. Granted, it isn’t as if she’s tasked with a long, character defining monologue like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman but suffice to say Bell does an admirable job of portraying frustrated vulnerability as well as determined strength; Bell does an especially nice job of putting on the slow burn without dissolving into caricature.

Some may say Zoë Bell doesn’t embody the classic beauty or vulnerability one may expect if a mainstream Hollywood actress were cast in this “woman in peril” role – I won’t say that because I can guarantee Bell could knock the snot out of me and 99% of those reading this – but Bell provides more gravitas than the usual suspects might be expected to garner. While we’re talking about that whole “women in peril” or “women in prison” sort of film, prospective viewers should be aware you won’t be catching any nudity or shower scenes here. You won’t find as much as a nipple slip in Raze and, even though the women fight in white tank tops, I wasn’t aware as even a glimpse of nudity during any scene.

Some may whine there isn’t any nudity in Raze but them’s the facts.

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