Sure, we may have had our fill of the ’80s nostalgia horror trend that has been running rampant over the last couple years, but I will never complain about a fun-loving slasher indie, set in the all-too-scary deep neck of the woods (scary for me at least, because I am terrified of the woods) with a crew of scintillating punk kids and a delectable performance from Jeremy S. Holm as a psycho ranger at its core.
Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger— which made the festival rounds last year and has found a home on Shudder’s streaming service when it premieres this week– cold opens with a young, distraught Chelsea (Pet Sematary remake’s Jete Laurence) and the local ranger (Holm), as cops arrive when
someone something has accidentally taken a bullet. Flash forward to years later, an adult Chelsea (Chloe Levine) and her anti-fascists punk friends need a place to crash when they run away from the cops after a night of debauchery, and arrive at Chelsea’s old, abandoned cabin that has not been occupied since her uncle died during her childhood. Ranger is not a fan of Chelsea and her friends, and he will make sure that they pay– not only for their general douchey shenanigans, but also for something that he feels Chelsea owes him for from her past. If Jason Voorhees despised teenage copulation, this Ranger guy has a loathing for “trash in the woods.”
What makes The Ranger stand out amongst the other dime-a-dozen, cheesy slashers is its group of sometimes endearing, sometimes obnoxious punk kids. The last thing I want to see in my slashers is yet another group of generic, frat boy/sorority girl types named Mike or Ashley who only come to the woods to fuck and drink beer. This diverse group of young people can also be jerks, but with their blue hair and patches and pins-laden leather jackets, who hate authority and thrive on rebellion– they are far more worthy to root for. If you crave a less depressing version of the Green Room bandmates and a more The Return of the Living Dead brand of subculture kids, The Ranger hits the spot with its crew of colorful characters.
For what Wexler lacks in clarity of a timeframe (is this the actual ’80s, since there are boom boxes but no cell phones– or just a love letter to the style and aesthetic of it?) she makes up for in her stylistic choices. The cinematography consists of some beautiful wide shots of the forest, as well as some giallo-inspired splashes of vibrant, magenta pink lighting. And of course, she inserts a catchy punk soundtrack in the background. Nothing will make you pee your pants in fear, but multiple sounds of alarming gun shots echoing throughout the otherwise quiet forest gave me the chills. Gore hounds should get a kick out of limbs tearing off bodies and lots of bloody gun shot wounds prosthetics.
No one is winning an Academy Award here, however, all members of this lively cast are really fun to watch. Jeremy S. Holm is visibly having a blast diving head first into this campy, antagonist role– and it shows. He brings the jet black dark comedy (and you’ll know the pinnacle moment when you see it) without ever forgetting the cultural subtext of playing the role of a man who is disturbingly abusing his power. Is there anything scarier than that? With his over-the-top maniacal laugh married with his all-too-American moral majority attitude, I always looked forward to seeing what awful kills and torture he was about to pull next. Some of the supporting cast encroaches amateur level, but Levine and Granit Lahu (Garth) stand out. Levine’s thoughtful portrayal of the traumatized adult version of Chelsea definitely makes me want to see her in future final girl roles.
We never find out exactly what is eating at Chelsea or what exactly happened in this cabin during her childhood until the film’s final 20 minutes, where everything comes together in a devastating way. Chelsea is much more complex than she seems, as she is carrying a nearly unbearable weight on her shoulders from her past, but Wexler is careful not to make this a problematic narrative about blaming women. Chelsea may be troubled, but we always back her and never want to see her succumb to the patriarchy, consisting of a) her ass of a boyfriend who flirts with other girls and mocks her “hard-on” for authoritative men, and b) psycho Ranger whose fascination with her always makes us question what else he may have done to her when she was a child– something that is sort of implied, but never directly said.
Clocking in at a short and sweet 80 minute-runtime, The Ranger may not break any slasher grounds or subvert many expectations (well, except for one moment involving some wolf skin and human howling) but it doesn’t have to. It knows what it is– good ol’ fashioned slasher fun, stacked with evocative characters (even at their absolute worst behavior) and some genuinely unnerving deaths. Give it a chance, slasher fans. I think you’ll have some fun with it.
The Ranger will be available exclusively on Shudder starting May 9th.