Recent years have seen a number of '80s “throwback” horror films, with some filmmakers incorporate synthesizer scores and others fully attempting to replicate the aesthetics of '80s horror. The new generation of filmmakers grew up on these movies, be they generic slashers, practical effects creature features, or splattery body horror. Some use the films of the '80s as inspiration; others strive for imitation. I prefer the former.
The Ranger, the debut feature from writer/director Jenn Wexler, is the former. Using films like Friday the 13th and The Return of the Living Dead as inspiration, The Ranger follows a group of teenage punks who get in trouble with the cops and hide out at the wilderness cabin once inhabited by Chelsea (Chloe Levine), who experienced tragedy there as a kid and is none to happy to be going back. Unfortunately for them, the woods are patrolled by The Ranger (Jeremy Holm), a psychotic park ranger who’s had designs on Chelsea ever since she was a young girl.
The premise is simple. It’s meant to be. This is a slasher movie. Where The Ranger distinguishes itself is in its energy and its attitude, not to mention the inspired use of a forest ranger as the killer, which is a first as far as I can remember (though with the sheer number of slashers that have been made in the last 40 years, I’m sure some have slipped by). The use of punk music all over the soundtrack contrasted with the peace and quiet of the woods feels almost like a mission statement for what Wexler has been trying to do in the horror genre for years behind the scenes: she’s trying to shake things up.
What’s interesting about The Ranger is that Wexler doesn’t appear to be siding with the punks, who are obnoxious to a degree that’s just this side of Tromaville. I get it; being punk is about giving the finger to everyone and everything, but there’s a point at which being punk just becomes being shitty, and the movie acknowledges when that line gets crossed by making Chelsea a kind of moral center. If anything, The Ranger may spend too much time just hanging out with the punks at the cabin, as it takes a while for the real horror to kick in. Once it does, though, the movie really lifts off: there are some really fun gore gags, The Ranger has some great one-liners, and everything just keeps getting more and more demented. I like how Wexler is willing to turn the subtext of so many slasher/final girl relationships into plain old text, laying out what’s really going on in these movies in the last act.
Holding everything together at the center are the performances of Levine and Holm, both of whom inhabit and imbue their characters with exactly what’s needed to make the movie work. As The Ranger, Holm is funny and deadpan (until he isn’t), cutting a menacing figure while knowing exactly how to play into the joke. Levine is completely on the other side of the spectrum, giving a soulful, wounded performance almost entirely through her eyes. The Ranger is outrageous, for sure—it’s a movie about a killer park ranger—but Levine grounds the emotion and allows the viewer to experience something real through all the punk rock madness. It’s good stuff.
If half the job of a slasher movie is introducing a cool, potentially iconic killer, The Ranger succeeds. It’s pretty rough around the edges, part by design and part because this is Wexler’s first movie, but it’s a lot of fun and the kind of horror movie you want to put on at parties. It feels like something that could have been made in the '80s without desperately trying to look and feel like it was made in the '80s, and it’s got me looking forward to whatever Wexler makes next.
Movie Score: 3/5
Editor's Note: Check here to read all of our reviews from the 2018 Cinepocalypse film festival!