Blood, Tennessee sunshine, and white-robed cannibals: Death Ranch is an exploitation homage, beautifully made, and exciting to watch.
Death Ranch opens with a joyous, laidback family reunion in 1971 when Angela (Faith Monique) and Clarence (Travis Cutner) meet younger brother Brandon (Deiondre Teagle), freshly escaped from prison. So smiley, so sunny, you just know it’s not going to last; especially as you spot a noose hanging from a tree just a few minutes in. Brandon wakes up to the sound of screaming in the middle of the night, stunned into action on discovering that the abandoned family ranch they’ve hidden out in has been occupied by a cannibalistic Ku Klux Klan cult.
This is the brand new film written and directed by Charlie Steeds, the young London filmmaker who likes to have his way with all kinds of horror techniques and subgenres. The latest style that he’s chosen to make his bitch is grindhouse, essentially combining Blaxploitation with cannibal film subgenres. Violent exploitation films may be on the periphery of the horror film genre, but as Steeds said in our interview, racism is something which horrifies him, especially in its violent expression in the form of the Ku Klux Klan through American history.
Death Ranch is a beautifully produced homage to the lurid, bloody, and extreme films of decades past. It’s so seventies – from the font of the opening credits through the cars, clothes, radio news, and of course soundtrack – that I expected to hear Car Wash at any moment, or see the late, beloved Charles Napier underneath one of those white hoods. The cast, as it happens though, are all relatively unknown. Death Ranch is only the second film for both Teagle and Monique, though you wouldn’t know it at all: everyone comes across as capable and confident, whether it’s in slow motion shootouts or giving payback for a rape. Emotions and action alike are delivered with consistent passion and energy… in case you couldn’t tell, I loved it.
Clearly influenced by Tarantino, as well as the older films that inspired him, Steeds’ Death Ranch revels in blood and loyalty alike. A good deal of the violence is more intense than perhaps it needs to be, a little cartoonish here and there; but that fits both the story and the genre style. As Brandon says, after a central, decisive scene, “let’s get crazy”. And although there’s plenty of this rather well-done gore, this is no splatterfest, but rather an action film with affection for its predecessors and respect for its background social setting.
Yes, Death Ranch isn’t a preaching or social commentary style film about racism; the racial conflict is simply a setting: it is accepted from the start that the KKK crowd are bad guys, with no explanatory background needed, just as Nazis are in many other modern horror films. I’m kind of tired of Nazi zombies by now. I liked the gender treatment too, which was perhaps one way that Steeds refocused his exploitation lens for modern eyes: Angela is a partner in the fight against the bigots, not simply a screaming victim; and although she is a victim at first, there is no gratuitous cleavage or sensationalizing of her ordeal.
Death Ranch is less than eighty minutes long but packed so full of action and excitement that it doesn’t feel short at all. I would love to see this film get Charlie Steeds more recognition, especially overseas, now that its world premiere has taken place at Grimmfest.
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