Review: Raze (2014)

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Director: Josh C. Waller
Screenwriter: Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage & Josh C. Waller
Cast: Zoe Bell, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms, Sherilyn Fenn, Bruce Thomas, Doug Jones, Adrienne Wilkinson & Rosario Dawson
Runtime: 87 min // Certificate: TBC

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJViXYp9sg8]

Exploitation cinema has always been a tough nut to crack. Lots of amateur directors think they can get away with making an exploitation film because such enterprises will always have an audience, yet it is the realisation that there’s a very thin line between an exploitation film and an exploitative film that separates the wheat from the chaff. In the case of Josh C. Waller, the man responsible for Raze, we have a director who has managed to turn a film about women beating seven shades of shit out of each other under strenuous circumstances into a minor feminist allegory.

I went into Raze with a number of reservations. Whenever a male director tells us that his film is about female empowerment, the opposite tends to be true. Whenever a male director tells us that his film is meant to demonstrate how awful true exploitation can be, what we get is a film that sets out to appeal to the type of audience that revels in said exploitation. It’s a depressing trend, and one that has given genuine exploitation cinema a terrible name over the past decade. Now, whilst Waller is far from the saviour of the genre, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a film that indulges in all the classic tropes of exploitation cinema without resorting to crass voyeurism or misogyny.

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The plot of Raze finds its influence in classic exploitation trash, though this is far from a bad thing. A group of 50 women are kidnapped and forced to fight to death in a series of one-on-one duels by an eccentric / evil couple with more money than they know what to do with. Refusal to fight, or failure to win, will result not just in the death of the woman but also in the death of her family. It’s gruesome stuff as I’m sure you can imagine. We join the proceedings when over half of the participants are already dead, though there’s still a long way to go. After a meeting with the bizarre couple who own the complex in which the fights take place, the women are thrown back into their cells to prepare for the next batch of death matches.

So, Raze is a vicious, violent film but it’s a far cry from the rotten, Hostel-esque torture porn that, over the past decade, has all but driven this once-great genre into the ground. It’ll make you cringe, it’ll make you cover your eyes in disgust… it might even make you want to throw up, but Raze thrives on a representation of woman-on-woman violence with which sexism can be no bedfellow. The characters are female but they’re far from typical horror females. Were it men fighting instead of women, very few things would need to be changed. Waller’s characters don’t walk around scantily clad, they don’t conform to stereotype and they certainly aren’t afraid to get down and dirty when it comes to fighting. On the flipside of this, however, they also aren’t all your typical “strong and sassy” women. We don’t learn much about the characters, which is sort of a shame, but they each have a distinct personality, which makes investing in their plight all the more worthwhile.

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Raze is far from perfect but, as debut efforts go, it’s a decent little attempt to subvert the genre. Waller grasps the importance of character, and though the main focus is on the violence he makes the time to allow us to explore his characters a little bit. None of them – not even main character Sabrina (Bell) – are particularly complex, but they all bring something to the table that keeps things interesting in those few moments when the violence takes a backseat. Zoe Bell, whose character acts as the feint through which the audience can invest in the horror before them, strikes the perfect balance between final girl badassery and raw, honest victimhood, and is the foundation upon which the film is built, though the rest of the performances are just as good. Furthermore, though we don’t get to spend much time in their company, what happens to the characters is undeniably harrowing and affecting.

Raze doesn’t come without its problems but, for a debut exploitation film, it’s nothing short of a great success. It’s violent, gory and nasty, yet at the same time there’s an undercurrent of social commentary which keeps the film fresh. If you’re a fan of the genre, or even if you’re not and just fancy revelling in some hideous but well-choreographed action, you can do a lot worse than Raze so I totally recommend giving it a go. Just try not to eat while you’re watching it…

★★★

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