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Credit: Cinipix/Quincy Pictures

Deep Cuts: Raze

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Aug 30, 2019

The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This time we're looking at Raze, a psychological horror film centered around female rage under life-or-death circumstances.

Put simply, 2013’s Raze is an unrelenting, unforgiving film. If there was any movie in recent memory that fully encapsulated the oft-used phrase “blood, sweat, and tears,” it’s this one, which tells the story of Sabrina, as well as the 49 other women who have been kidnapped with her, as they’re forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the rich. There are extenuating circumstances as to why these captives comply; their loved ones are being monitored, and any loss or resistance will result in their deaths. The only way to survive is, essentially, to win — and to live to fight another day.

When Raze was released six years ago, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar, but I was more than familiar with the work of its lead actress and stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who has doubled most notably for Lucy Lawless’s Xena and Cate Blanchett’s Hela, to name just a few. She’s also part of the ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof, where she plays a slightly fictionalized version of herself who teams up with her friends to take down a homicidal stunt driver — and gets in a few impressive car surfing stunts over the course of the movie. The mere concept of Raze seemed like a perfect fit to highlight Bell’s fighting abilities, but the way the film unexpectedly taps into the emotions of its female combatants gives her the opportunity to shine on a number of levels.

We’re first introduced to Bell’s character, Sabrina, when she becomes the deceptive ally of a newly kidnapped fighting “initiate” named Jamie (Rachel Nichols). Not long after Jamie encounters Sabrina in the labyrinthine underground that dead-ends in the fighting pit, the older woman turns the tables on her, though it’s not an easy struggle for either of them. Through a line delivered via flashback, we’ve already learned that Jamie has possessed the pipe dream of being a kickboxer, so between her aptitude in this arena and Sabrina’s scrappiness, their fight is just as tenacious as it is tentative. Neither of them wants to resort to literally murdering the other for a faceless audience, but as Jamie asks Sabrina why, her answer is chillingly simple: “Because we have to.” Shortly thereafter, Sabrina is declared the winner.

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Credit: Cinipix/Quincy Pictures

The merciless environment that Sabrina and the other participants are coerced into dictates most of their actions. When they’re not fighting, they’re kept in cells and fed meager portions. Initiates who live to fight another day are referred to as “victors,” while photos from the losers' driver's licenses are broadcast over a video feed in some kind of twisted In Memoriam. Sound familiar? Raze has no doubt already garnered comparisons to others that have a similar theme of “survival at all costs” baked in — The Hunger Games being the most obvious, of course — but that’s only if you examine the surface-level language used to describe the life-or-death situation these women have found themselves in. Go deeper and the differences emerge.

Yes, there is violence. Most of it can be heard rather than glimpsed — the sounds of bones breaking, blows landing, women grunting in pain. Director Josh C. Waller has gone on record as saying that one of his intentions in making the film was to avoid extensive gore in favor of depicting emotional pain instead. That alone elevates Raze in one aspect. The second is when you take time to consider who the violence is most often directed at, and whose hands deliver it. In the arena, women only fight against other women. Their guards do happen to be men, but they tend to serve merely as armed escorts delivering the initiates from point A to point B and don’t abuse their position of authority. And although Raze offers a nod to the all-female exploitation films of past decades, Waller actively avoids showcasing certain aspects of the fighters that would detract from the film’s overarching message. Any time a female body is shown in close-up, it is clothed, grimy, perspiring, bloodied, but never objectified.

The biggest thought I had after watching this movie is: Why hasn’t Zoe Bell been cast in more mainstream films, at least beyond the part of stunt double or supporting role? She’s the equivalent of a modern-day gladiator in Raze, a warrior woman who is frequently beaten but never fully broken. Her steely-eyed resilience is the focus of several shots within the movie, to the point where you begin to hope against hope (and against better judgment, probably) that her fate, unlike so many of the women before her, will be different. The story rests on her shoulders most significantly, and while the composure of the imprisoned women in the cells around her begins to fracture, Bell’s Sabrina continues to endure, as does Teresa (Tracie Thoms). Thoms and Bell’s chemistry in their makeshift allegiance as the seniormost members of the initiates is a wonderful revisit from their previous collaboration — along with a surprising (albeit brief) cameo from a third Death Proof cast member, Rosario Dawson.

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Credit: Cinipix/Quincy Pictures

And, in typical horror fashion, Raze is a film that plays host to many more familiar faces from genre. Doug Jones (The Shape of Water, Star Trek: Discovery) and Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) feature as a wealthy couple who are revealed to be running the entire operation, and their deliberately obtuse buoyancy acts as an unsettling contrast to the grim and lethal milieu they have pressed these women into. Bruce Thomas, who's playing very much against the type of one of his previous roles, the UPS Guy in the Legally Blonde movies, also delivers a strong performance as a particularly ruthless guard.

There are moments when I would’ve liked to have seen some of Raze’s underlying abstracts fleshed out a little more. The movie teases at hints of Greek mythology, both in its opening credits and in the fashion of the wealthy — at one point, Fenn’s character Elizabeth wears a dress that can only be described as a contemporary version of an Olympian goddess — but the quibbles I have about Raze’s narrative shortcomings are incredibly minor in the larger scope of the film. Its strengths rest within the more obvious analogy of women pitted against one another in an ongoing struggle and the lengths they resort to for survival, paired with some brutally impressive fight choreography. In the end, the most decisive fight Sabrina wins is not about protecting someone else, it’s about protecting herself. If you’re looking for an obscure psychological horror movie that delves into the primal underpinnings of female rage and resolve, do yourself a favor and check out Raze.

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