Tennessee, 1971. On the run from the police, Brandon Cobbs (Deiondre Teagle) meets up with sister Angela (Faith Monique) and big brother Clarence (Travis Cutner) and the three of them head for an abandoned ranch, a “perfect hideout” where they intend to lay low for until the intensity of the manhunt dies down a little.
At night, Brandon hears screams out in the woods and when he goes to investigate, he runs straight into a gathering of KKK types who are about to murder a black woman. But these are not your run-of-the-mill, narrow-minded, dumb, movie Klan racists. They’re cannibalistic, narrow-minded, dumb, movie Klan racists and they want dinner. Let gory battle commence…
From the opening frame, Charlie Steeds’ bloodthirsty thriller embraces its funky 70s vibe and the title sequence possesses a certain grindhouse flavour. The dialogue in the first act, as the Cobbs siblings catch up with each other, does come with more than a hint of blue-collar, black characters written by a white-collar, white guy but the sense of exaggeration extends to virtually every facet of Death Ranch so the proliferation of the Oedipal noun doesn’t jar as much as it could have.
To be fair, the initial chit chat is little more than set-up for the main attraction, which is a series of OTT fights and shootouts as our heroes are initially captured by white supremacists, then make their escape and turn the tables in gleefully gory fashion, resembling a particularly grimy video game in the way that wave after wave of white-hooded lunkheads show up to be dispatched in splattery, audience-pleasing ways.
Clocking in at just 77 minutes, Death Ranch doesn’t hang around once the red stuff begins to spill. Its examination of race relations starts and finishes with offensive epithets being dealt with courtesy of various blunt – and, it has to be said, thoroughly deserved – responses, such a gunshot to the forehead or an axe to the balls. There are quieter moments along the way but they’re only really there to break up the bloodshed.
The lack of a major bad guy across the duration of the piece dilutes the overall threat of the villains a little but to be honest their primary function is to provide a few laughs from their unstinting stupidity and to up the body count. Their lack of a plan chimes amusingly with just how dim they are, making the action episodic but still fun. If you like to see racists blasted, stabbed and chopped up, you’ll find a lot of that here. Also, this is not here to serve up sympathetic bad guys in any way, it’s here to serve up unsympathetic bad guys to their maker.
In the final analysis, you can’t say that Death Ranch is a searing, forensic study of bigotry and its effects but if you came here for that, what were you thinking? It’s a movie called Death Ranch, for crying out loud. It’s a cartoony, enjoyable ride which never really attempts to position itself as anything but. You may forget almost everything about it as soon as the credits have rolled – for instance, I had to go back and check the name of the main character – but there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy its increasingly ludicrous scenes of carnage while it’s playing.
The 70s news reports and radio ads add welcome period flavour but to be honest this could have been set in other decades and still had exactly the same effect. The lack of mobile phone technology means the Klan doesn’t get to call in the reinforcements en masse or warn their buddies that they’re being gruesomely wiped out. Also, pitching this in the time of blaxploitation movies allows Death Ranch to nod, however tenuously, to that iconic era of cinema.
This is brief, barmy, bloody and what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in amusingly queasy demises. The performances range from slightly overstated to unrelentingly cartoony, fitting the tone rather well. Its plot may be almost entirely predictable but in many ways that’s beside the point. Why complicate the simple joys of watching staggeringly dumb extremists getting their comeuppance? Death Ranch is a film which I would suggest is best enjoyed in “brain off” mode, with a group of friends, possibly with alcoholic beverages to hand. And what’s wrong with that?