Director: Jenn Wexler
Starring: Chloe Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Larry Fessenden
Another theme that is currently in favour at the moment (other than nuns) is the 1980’s, which suits me down to the ground. The Ranger, which had its UK premiere at Frightfest 2018, is one that stands out among the rest. Directed by Jenn Wexler (Psychopaths), it combines nostalgic neon with grit and a heavy touch of sadist humour.
It’s the 1980’s and following a drug raid at their favourite club, tearaway punk Chelsea (fantastically played by Chloe Levine, Marvel’s The Defenders) and her friends travel to her late uncles cabin to hide out until the heat dies down. On the way there they cross paths with a stern but slightly off-kilter Ranger (Jeremy Holm, Mr Robot) from her past who expects the group to play by the park rules and respect his mountain. Unsurprisingly they don’t, and what follows is a blood-splatted showdown between the ranger and unruly punks where he will make sure if they can’t live by the rules that they won’t live at all.
At its heart The Ranger is a cabin-at-the-woods film with a shadowy unhinged slasher – a homage to the 80’s classics, yet at the same time there is more bubbling under the surface. Our punk protagonists are outsiders with big dreams who aren’t constrained by societal norms, and in fact relish going up against them. Yet within Chelsea there is unease, as though having a very early mid-life crisis she’s already on the cusp of change and wondering if this is what she wants to be doing. Whilst the others seem happy to hide in the belief that all of their hopes and dreams will come true just because they want them to, she’s more clued in to the fact that this won’t always be the case. Already an outsider to society through being a punk, she in turn becomes an outsider to them too in the film when she shows smarts and responsibility that the others just aren’t ready for. As the audience watches this unfold it feels like a morality tale of sorts – much as in real adult life, those not willing to grow and change are unlikely to survive.
It would be remiss to talk about a film called The Ranger and not devote time to the ranger himself, who feels like a cross between Trooper Thorny from Super Troopers and Patrick Warburton’s deadpan portrayal of Lemony Snicket with a large dash of Patrick Bateman and Freddy Krueger for menace. From the start it’s clear there’s something very off about him – it is truly creepy how he sees Chelsea as some sort of kindred spirit to his – and as the film progresses you see how truly unhinged he is as he wreaks havoc through the national park whilst espousing park rules and regulations that fit the occasion to his victims. Jeremy Holm plays this character expertly, his stern deadpan delivery heightening the hilarity of the violence and with an occasional glint in the eye or sideways smirk showing how his true maniacal nature is relishing every wicked moment. The Ranger has everything you want of a villain, a hulking presence, seemingly complete omnipotence of the area (honestly the guy is everywhere), and full of one-liners that make you laugh out loud throughout. He’s the perfect homage to the villains of the classic 80’s slasher films and is a delight to watch as he hacks his way through his victims whilst quite literally laying down the law.
The dialogue for the most part skews teen movie, with an acerbic wit and dryness that you’d find spouting from characters in any John Hughes film of the period The Ranger is set in. Filled with black humour and an I-don’t-care attitude it’s as punk as the character, giving it a fast pace and some slickness not normally associated with films set in the woods. The oftentimes rapid-fire dialogue built tension in a more manic way because of this, making it all feel more urgent and wild. Visually I love how the characters clashed with the natural surroundings in their neon hair and punk clothes, further demonstrating that they aren’t a part of anything else and once again highlighting their rejection of everything around them. For a film set in a vast and sprawling forest there is an uneasy sense of being trapped, setting much of the film in darkness and keeping the camera close on the cast emphasized that well, mimicking the feelings of paranoia the characters were facing with the ranger constantly on them like a violent shadow.
For a homage to the slasher films of the 80’s you may be expecting The Ranger to be a total splatterfest, but though there are multiple deaths (don’t complain that’s a spoiler, honestly were you expecting a slasher film to have a low body count?) it isn’t as gratuitously violent as you would think. The kill scenes themselves are violent and at times gory, but by employing a variety of kill methods this isn’t your usual hack and slash – it’s far more inventive than that. Whereas usually the villain has a method of choice here the ranger’s only M.O. is that those who don’t play by the rules must be stopped – by any means necessary – which means the audience doesn’t quite know what he’ll do next. The use of practical effects in the film was a joy to watch – something to be appreciated in an era where so much is now CGI, coupled with the variety of violent acts it feels like they worked really hard to make it look good on a low budget and they really succeeded with this.
The Ranger is a funny and smart horror that subverts horror tropes and gives the audience plenty of laughs. It’s in your face and doesn’t care, blasting you with an 80’s punk soundtrack that matches the dialogue and mood in both aggression and pace. All at once it feels like the 80’s at its brightest in personality and devil-may-care spunky attitude whilst also gritty and dingy, with everything from the visuals to the characters clashing throughout the film in a high-octane anarchic way. If this was made in the 80’s we’d be looking forward to many more films with the ranger as the big bad, which I would love for them to do now (what could be more of a homage to the long-running slasher film series’ than for the ranger to have one of his own). Reminiscent of Return of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street in all the best ways, if you have a love of 80’s horror as I do there is plenty to love here – an angry love note to the golden age of slasher’s set in the best decade.
Overall rating: 4/5
A punk as fuck, lo-fi, high fun flick that fans of retro will undoubtedly enjoy!