It can be hard for a slasher horror film to stand out with the sheer number of slasher horror films, deconstruction slasher horror films, and new wave homage slasher horror films. Part of what makes director and co-writer Jenn Wexler’s new horror film THE RANGER so effective is that it transcends homage and deconstruction to find its own particular voice. It manages to upend slasher horror conventions and homage the 80s age of horror while standing on its own as a stellar debut work of horror filmmaking.

Transcendent Horror

The Ranger
Courtesy of Glass Eye Pix/Hood River Entertainment

The film follows a group of New York City punk rock kids who get into an altercation with the police. The kids go on the run to the woods of upstate after one kills a police officer. Specifically, to Chelsea’s (Chloe Levine) family cabin. The set-up is classic “cabin in the woods” stuff, but the twist comes from Wexler and co-writer Giaco Furino’s portrayal of the villain.

When considering classic slasher movie villains, a few names come to mind. You have Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger as the unholy trinity. Perhaps a few others might make the cut like Ghostface, Leatherface, or…the Leprechaun from the Leprechaun movies? Regardless, audiences love these characters for their iconic look, not because they are well-rounded. Filmmakers may give them tragic backstories in third-act reveals or in sequels, but they usually keep them mysterious.

This is what makes the adversarial relationship between Chelsea and the Ranger (Jeremy Holm) so effective. Wexler and Furino reveal to us early on that Chelsea encountered the Ranger in her youth. Without going too far into spoilers, this traumatic experience has shaped Chelsea into who she is now. Ultimately, she has one abusive, controlling figure (the Ranger) and replaces him with another (her boyfriend Garth).

When Chelsea and her friends arrive at the cabin, her friends show no respect for the sanctity of nature around them. This, of course, brings about the wrath of the Ranger. A less effective film would have hung its premise on that alone. A psychotic, rules-obsessed park ranger picking off unruly teens. But there is the extra tension in knowing the Ranger harbors a sick obsession with Chelsea as well.

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The Punk Aesthetic

New York City shlock films of the 70s and 80s had a certain grime to them. As the city reinvented itself into a tourist spot, that grime washed away into the gutters. Wexler manages to recapture some of that grime in the early scenes of THE RANGER. There are moments early in the film during a punk show that captures that bygone era of NYC. Wexler also does an exemplary job in casting and directing Chelsea’s group of friends. The performances from each of the young actors (Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Bubba Weiler, and Amanda Grace Benitez) feels genuine and lived in. There’s a scene where the group wanders through the woods towards Chelsea’s cabin where their camaraderie feels completely natural.

Wexler and Furino avoid the stereotypes that would often plague the horror films of the past making these kids sympathetic and real. In particular, the relationship between Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler) is incredibly refreshing in its portrayal of a gay relationship that isn’t commented on but instead treated as completely normal. It’s that sense of reality that makes the arrival of the punks into the forest all the more surreal. When Wexler swaps the comic book colored lighting of the city with the natural colors of the forests, it feels jarring, immediately putting the audience on edge for the slaughter to come.

Wexler puts in the work that few horror films do by making us care for the characters instead of rushing us along to the violence we’re expecting. It makes the moment when the terror does finally kick in all the more shocking and impactful. The audience almost forgets what type of movie it’s watching until the horror shoe inevitably drops.  

The Ranger Danger

The Ranger
Courtesy of Glass Eye Pix/Hood River Entertainment

It’s from this tension that Wexler expertly executes the feminist themes that lurk in the corners of every slasher film. It helps, of course, that her script is serviced by a pair of fantastic actors. Chloe Levine continues to build her genre film bonafides following her excellent turn in THE TRANSFIGURATION.  Levine is still a relative newcomer, but performances like this one show that she is bound to break out any day now.

One of her greatest strengths as an actor is to show vulnerability and strength with little more than a few glances. Wexler’s film plays to Levine’s abilities. There are no lengthy, histrionic monologues that express Chelsea’s pain or discomfort. Levine makes all of that clear through anxious, darting eyes, or slouching body language. Levine subtly brings the trauma of Chelsea to life in each scene.

Her main scene partner Jeremy Holm exudes menace as the Ranger. He’s the perfect embodiment of patriarchal rage, with a scowl resembling a Steve Dillon drawing made flesh. It’s an odd thing seeing a slasher villain given any level of dimension at all. Holm manages to find the delicate balance between making the character seem both real and monstrous. The Ranger’s sense of ownership over Chelsea makes him all the more unsettling as a villain, in part because it feels true to life. Here, the horror villain and final girl relationship are reinvented as a commentary on patriarchal desires to control young women.

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A Horror Movie Blast

The punk music of Chelsea is contrasted with the Ranger’s repeated singing of Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Quite literally expressing the conflict of young and old, of the new and the traditional. Levine and Holm bring out the best in each other’s performances, leading to a beautifully cathartic conclusion.

Ultimately, these performance helps us to see Wexler’s ultimate point. Horror movie monsters aren’t as scary as the mundane monsters that sit in positions of authority in our everyday lives. THE RANGER is a more than a disposable throwback. It reinvents horror tropes into an insightful and rollicking midnight movie blast.

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