Death Ranch [Grimmfest Review]: Grindhouse meets Blaxploitation
It’s a hard task to make the Klu Klux Klan seem more deplorable than they already are, but Death Ranch manages to transform them into more than just the monsters we’ve perceived them as before. Not only are they vicious white supremacists, but they also have a taste for flesh, specifically African-American flesh. That’s right, they’re Cannibals with a capital K. Cruel, unrelenting and about to meet their match in this ode to Grindhouse Blaxploitation film.
It’s 1971 in Tennessee and convict Brandon Cobbs (Deiondre Teagle) has managed to escape what would have been a long prison sentence and meet up with his siblings, Angela (Faith Monique) and Clarence (Travis Cutner). They need to lay low until he’s no longer hot news, something much more manageable in the 70’s than it would be now. The hideout of choice is their Grandaddy’s old ranch, a stunning isolated location that works perfectly to allow them some anonymity, for a while at least.
“Once Death Ranch gets going it doesn’t let up the pace. It’s fast, fun and fucked up in so many ways.”
Unfortunately, this trio soon find they are not as alone on these acres of land as they assumed. After settling in for the night Brandon is woken by a woman’s screams. He goes to investigate and discovers a Black woman being ushered towards a giant fire by a group of Klu Klux Klan members. He manages to save her from a fiery death but he and his siblings do not get away in time and end up tied up and tortured by these hooded racists. It’s now down to the trio to use all their strength and smarts to save each other, take down these monsters and survive their sick tormentors.
I must admit, the opening act of this film had some tough to watch moments. The extreme torture of the brothers and the horrific rape of the sister were bleak and ghastly to say the least. It’s uncomfortable to watch these racists winning and revelling in their prizes, yet that’s how all revenge films begin, with the villains on top and the heroes suffering. As soon as the tables turn and the bloody revenge begins it’s impossible not to cheer along as the true monsters are taken down in soul satisfying style. Once Death Ranch gets going it doesn’t let up the pace. It’s fast, fun and fucked up in so many ways.
For relative newcomers to the feature film game, our three leads do an excellent job of bringing life to the Cobbs family. Deiondre Teagle has a lot to carry in this film, playing the action lead and still being a charming character we root for. This is all established early on with some great interaction and honest words between the three siblings that tell us about their lives. The character of Brandon may fall into some of the unsavoury tropes of being a convict, but the film never goes out of its way to demand a verdict on his guilt, he may have been down on his luck and done something stupid, or he may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, like many who are prejudiced against at that time.
Faith Monique is incredible as Angela. She is a pure badass and can handle her own against these white robbed men. I understand that rape as a plot device shows how disgusting these men are and makes the vengeance even more justified, I just wish it wasn’t so easily thrown into these films. It could have been avoided and still allowed for a righteous show of action packed revenge. Yet, I will give credit for Angela’s character not falling into the stereotype of being a girlfriend or lover, she’s a strong protective sister who destroys those in her path with untold rage and some perfectly deadly traps. She is not a victim and Monique plays her with such strength she could never be accused of being one.
There’s no holding back on the gore. It doesn’t shy away from showing us the pain and torture of the KKK members, allowing us to bask in the retribution and the decimation of a group of villains we have no single reason to feel sorry for. It’s ultimate catharsis to watch them get what’s coming to them. They are pure evil in every way, no redemption, no justification beyond assumed superiority so watching them suffer gun shots, axe wounds and testicular trauma is satisfying as all hell.
With it’s style combination of Grindhouse B-Movie and Blaxploitation it relishes the conventions offering explosive gore and some hilarious, and pointedly excessive, dialogue. Just from the opening on-screen graphics it’s intentions and inspirations are clearly laid out. The use of practical effects is always heartily welcomed by Horror fans and lovers of splatter and this is a real treat of a film in that respect. I really enjoyed the soundtrack, from the very beginning it started as the merge of two distinctly different trends of the 70’s, Country and Funk, and instantly gave hints of the two worlds about to brutally collide. The cinematography utilises its single location setting beautifully, carrying us up to the barn rafters to slam us back down to the hay laden ground beneath. It’s indie low budget at its creative finest.
Director Charlie Steeds has delivered numerous gruesome and gore filled features before Death Ranch and even owns his own production company Dark Temple Motion Pictures, allowing him to keep his indie sensibilities whilst having creative control of his own work. He favours the practical effects which links to his old school sensibilities and lends perfectly to this Grindhouse inspired production. It’s quite impressive in many ways to see how this white British director takes on such topics. Yet it’s a strong story that makes sure there’s no moral grey, and the Black characters are our heroes. Steed’s intentions are good and he makes sure that those being exploited in this film are the deplorable Klan members, flipping the script on years of films depicting the opposite. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but nothing is. Death Ranch ends with a perfect one liner that cements the cathartic message of this film and perfectly sums up this retro-inspired revenge flick.