Any big, or perhaps even small, fan of Quentin Tarantino will most probably recognize the name of his go-to stuntwoman, turned personal muse, turned Death Proof star, Zoe Bell. After serving as Lucy Lawless’ stunt double in the last three years Xena: Warrior Princess was on air, Bell went on to be Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Tarantino’s Kill Bill trilogy. The rest, as they say, was history. True to slightly creepy Tarantino fashion, he developed an interest in Bell and cast her as a principal in Death Proof, his segment of Grindhouse, during which she was her own stunt double. Since then, Bell has served as a stunt double in many more movies, including Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and has held minor acting roles in many other films as well, including Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Is anyone noticing a pattern here? To be fair, Bell has also been featured in a good amount of non-Tarantino work, such as Whip It and a partial season of Lost. But those do not serve the Bell-as-Tarantino-muse theme I am trying to get at.
Anyway, flash forward to the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival where Josh C. Waller’s Raze premieres. Raze marks Waller’s very first foray into the world of feature filmmaking, before which he directed three shorts. Why is Raze so important? Well, in addition to being Waller’s directing debut, Raze is also the first film in which Zoe Bell was cast as the lead role, acting not just “stunting,” giving the film much greater appeal than if it was merely billed as a subversion of the traditional “women imprisonment” horror subgenre, which it definitely was.
Raze opens with a young woman on a comfortable blind date. After deciding not to invite her date in, she draws a bath for herself. During this bath, the woman is tased and abducted. She awakens in a dungeon. Assuming she is alone, the woman searches for a way out, only to come across Sabrina (Bell), who tells her that she too just woke up here and leads her to what she claims is the only way out, a spherical, stonewalled room. Once inside the room, the door quickly closes, locking the two girls in the room. As soon as it does, Sabrina begins beating the girl with her bare hands, saying only, “Sorry.” After killing the woman, Sabrina shouts, “How many more do I have to kill?!” And so, Raze begins.
As the film continues, the viewer learns that an original group of 50 women have been abducted and imprisoned in this cave as part of a cult’s initiation process, during which they must fight each other for their lives while the cult members watch the live footage from above the complex. The film begins when there are 25 women left and as the story develops, we see how those 25 women dwindle to the one who is given her freedom.
Just who is that one victor? You will have to see Raze to find out, a fate that I find fairly mediocre. I say this because I normally have a lot of trouble with the women imprisonment horror subgenre, finding it often voyeuristic and sadistic. Raze is no exception, containing strong themes of both. Where Raze does excel in this manner however, is through the plot, what little there is of it, that allows the viewer to also question these themes in addition to participating in them.
That is, the cult’s role in the film is such that it works to turn the voyeurism inherent to this subgenre of film on its head. Unfortunately, Waller focuses too heavily on the women fighting, so that while the viewer is privy to scenes of the inner workings of the cult, these scenes are few and far between. Mostly, we watch endless fight scenes between scantily clad women in this stonewalled pit. While yes, that is no doubt the point of the film and of casting Bell as the lead, I left the theater thinking that this was just another film in a long line of the same type.
That being said, watching Bell fight was particularly captivating and noteworthy. Perhaps this is because of her star power, but I suspect it has more to do with her nuanced and thoughtful performance on screen, in addition to her skills as a stunt woman.
Similarly, the cast of Raze, outside of Bell, is strong but highly underused. Cast notables include Tracie Thoms, Rebecca Marshall, Bailey Anne Borders and Rosario Dawson, who is given so little to do that I was not convinced this was her until I conducted research after the film ended. Sherilyn Fenn also does a good job as the cult leader’s wife, a fellow women who participates in the selection and cultivation of this process just as heavily as her husband. All these good performances however, are nothing without the character development or even the dialogue, to back them up. Instead of dialogue, we get fight scenes. Instead of character development, we get fight scenes. And instead of a fleshed out plot, we get fight scenes.
Just how good are these fight scenes? They are, in a word, repetitive. Yes, there are some stand out scenes, the final one in particular comes to mind. But as fight after fight breaks out, it becomes hard to decipher which fight you are watching and which characters are which, even despite written cues before each fight. While it is understandable just why Waller spends so much time on the fight scenes, if they had displayed a little more depth in skill they would have been much better.
If only Waller had developed the characters a little more, had given the film more of a back story, made us believe he did not make the film only to watch these beautiful actresses fight on screen. But alas, he did not. What Waller does leave us with is a movie that, while fun to watch at times and especially the end, is lacking in real substance. A perfectly mediocre film in which the female performances, what little screen time they are given, are the best part.