Posted January 20, 2014 by D. K. Holm
Raze is one of the most nihilistic films I’ve seen in a long time.
This low budget horror or suspense or martial arts film is the latest in a thematic genre that goes back immediately to the Hostel films, and before that to the teen slasher film inaugurated in America by Halloween and before that in Canada by Bob Clark in Black Christmas and even before that by Mario Bava in Italy with his gialla.(1) The premise of this lineage is to put a woman in peril, and keep chipping at her resolve until she either survives as the “final girl,” or succumbs in a knife-twisting coda. Hostel and some of its contemporaneous companions such as Saw and Captivity introduced the concept of “torture porn” and Raze extends the concept into the martial arts arena, with a little Hunger Games thrown in.
The film begins by pulling a Psycho. We are introduced to Jamie, played by Rachel Nichols, who also happens to be on of the producers. Waking up Saw-style in a dark, dirty place, she goes exploring and finds that she is in a maze of bland hallways and closed doors. While searching for an exit, she flashes back to her last memory, being in a bar with a blind date, who elicits from her the fact that at this stage of her life she likes martial arts. Then, at the end of a hallway, she meets Sabrina. The duo end up in a circular, stone-walled room with a dirt floor. Sabrina apologizes quietly and then proceeds to kick box with an at-first reluctant Jamie. That Sabrina bests – indeed kills – Jamie should come as no surprise as Sabrina is played by stunt woman and actress Zoë Bell in her first starring role. Like Marion Crane, Jamie is a red herring because Sabrina is the real star of the show.
Gradually we learn that Sabrina is one of six women imprisoned in a heavily guarded prison where the captives are led two by two into the round chamber to fight to the death for the amusement of a close circuit television camera that feeds the action to a group of swells watching from afar. Are they betting? Or is this bread and circuses for social elites? Raze is not clear about that, nor about the philosophical underpinning of the villains, a married couple (Twin Peak‘s Sherilyn Fenn, Hellboy‘s Doug Jones) who seem to be evoking some classical-era ethos about womanhood and power. The woman are not volunteers; they must fight to the death in order to keep alive for another day beloved mates or family members, a reversal of Scheherazade. Only one woman will be permitted to survive.
Sabrina is fighting for the survival of her (long lost?) daughter, whom she can view via CCTV sitting on a bed somewhere, oblivious to the turmoil her mother is going through. Others have husbands and parents. Some of the women are on the edge of a nervous breakdown; one relishes the fighting and can’t wait to take down Sabrina. In other cases, tenuous friendships are forged, but rebellion or revolt seem impossible.
Writers-producers-(and)director Josh C. Waller, Robert Beaucage, and Kenny Gage manage to squeeze a lot out of few resources. There are only two exterior scenes, and only about four interior sets. Narratively, Raze is a series of close-quarters fight scenes in which sweaty women in t-shirts beat the crap out of each other. Cinematographer Dylan O’Brien keeps things sand-colored, dark, and strangely clean. Ms. Bell, who resembles a sharp-nosed Kate Hudson, is fine and often alluring in a starring part tailored for her vigorous skills, and the rest of the cast are convincing as one-dimensional integers in the narrative’s arithmetic. But the calibre of a product forged out of low means doesn’t deflect questions about the film’s point.
Whose side does the movie take? Presumably it is Sabrina’s. But the nihilistic ending seems designed to depress us about the inevitable betrayals of life and the hopelessness of fighting our fate. Perhaps the movie is on the side of the guards and the married couple in charge of the hell hole. Or perhaps the film aligns itself with the complex attitudes of the viewer, who presumably both wants to see Sabrina escape but not before enduring a succeeding of bruising battles, and gets a kick simultaneously with both the brutality of the guards and the cunning of the evil landlords. If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em. Depending on one’s disposition, the ending, indeed the whole film could be cataloged as realistic rather than nihilistic. And sometimes great art itself is “depressing” in order to enlighten, disillusion, and inspire us.
Most sentient Americans are depressed right now about the state of the world, the country, the government, the economy, indeed even the air we breath and the water we drink. Is the moral responsibility of Hollywood or movie makers in general to “cheer us up”? All too often that means, “distracting us from active efforts to change circumstances.” On the other hand, filmmakers must remain true to their impulses and if Mr. Waller feels that life is hopeless, that we are betrayed by everyone we know, than he must remain true to that vision, even if he is only “experimenting” with it for the purposes of exploring alternative takes on how life works. Unfortunately, bleak endings in horror films (if that’s what this is) are rote, or knee-jerk – the movie ends, and then in a coda we learn that the evil still exists, that it hasn’t been vanquished, that it can’t be vanquished. For the filmmakers that alerts the viewer to a sequel, on the assumption that the viewer wants to see more of the same depressing, heroine-torturing dance numbers of violence. If Raze justifies a sequel, well, it will have to be with a whole new cast.
(1) The Italian Howard Hawks, Bava has the distinction of starting numerous new genres, or at least doing the best work in them.