In case you didn’t know, the Women In Prison film is a thing – to the extent that the Wikipedia entry on the exploitation cinema subgenre has dependable hallmarks that include ‘group strip searches’, ‘lesbian sex scenes between prisoners and the guards’, ‘fights between the prisoners (sometimes in the shower) ‘ and the faithful old ‘female prisoners being sprayed by a firehose’, among other things.
Welcome to Women In Prison for the new generation, and ”Raze” is a far cry from Caged Heat or Love Camp 7 you remember from dodgy old VHS copies. It was inevitable someone would resurrect the WIP (as it’s known) in the cult-friendly Tarantino age, but if you’re after lurid thrills, campy sexual innuendo and shonky acting and editing, there’s nothing for you to see here.
Making $700k look like $8-10m, director Josh Waller’s feature debut takes a simple premise straight from the heyday of the genre and recasts it without the nudges or winks that made old WIP movies part-comedy. Young women are kidnapped by a secret cabal of society’s elite, locked in a dungeon and told to fight one on one to death in a sandy pit until there’s only one left. The incentive? Their loved ones on the outside will be killed if they don’t.
And that’s where the potential for shower scenes, forced prostitution by guards and sexual torture is left. The actresses pay serious women in serious trouble, and despite yourself (especially if you’ve come for shower scenes and lesbian romps), you find yourself feeling for them and even upset when the nicer of their numbers meet their fate. The brutality of what befalls some of the characters in ”Raze” is realistic enough to make you wonder if you want to go through the experience again.
Because while it’s not about showers, pimp guards or firehoses, there’s one thing Raze is about, and that’s fights. With stuntwoman and fight choreographer Zoe Bell in the starring role (the film is also her first effort as a producer), you can be sure bones will be crunched and the crack of impacted flesh will ring out.
Bell is Sabrina, one of about a dozen women we see locked in a cell to contemplate her fate, let out every now and then to beat one of her fellow prisoners to death whatever alliances they’ve formed and however much reassurance they try to give each with tearful voices between their cells.
Worse still, there are more bad guys than just the eccentric married couple running the operation (Doug Jones, the creature actor of ”Hellboy” and ”Pan’s Labyrinth”, and Sherilyn Fenn of ”Twin Peaks” fame). The psychotic Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) hates everybody, has nothing to lose and can’t wait to crack whatever heads she comes up against.
As Wikipedia also says, ‘the story usually concludes with an uprising or escape sequence in which the villains are killed’. Waller (from a script by himself and co-writers Robert Beaucage and Kenny Gage) doesn’t deviate from the genre’s standard operating procedure here either (if that’s a spoiler, you’ve haven’t seen nearly enough women in prison movies), but it’s as urgent, high stakes and well made as the rest of the movie.
Like they are in real life the fights are scrappy and often dirty, but none of the essential elements of seeing a good skirmish on screen are held back thanks to Stunt coordinator/fight choreographer James Young (no doubt ably assisted by Bell herself).
Leigh Whannell of ”Saw” and ”Insidious” shows up for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-cameo as a guard (which also has the film’s sole hilarious line), and Rosario Dawson puts in an appearance too, no doubt still friendly with Bell after their work together on ”Death Proof”.