★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A sly 80’s slasher homage, where tropes collide: Punks on the Run plus The Cabin in the Woods.
Directed by Jenn Wexler
The eighties nostalgia train chugs along with Jenn Wexler’s take on a couple of classic VHS mainstay tropes. Back in the eighties, there were a number of low-budget movies like The Warriors, The Class of Nuke-Em High, Vigilante, Return of the Living Dead, and the Class of 1984 which pit rebellious young punks against either rival gangs, zombies, or the LAW. Covered in metal studs, ripped jeans, crazy hair, these movies both tapped into teen rebellion and anarchist angst. Usually, in these films, these punks are screaming hellions, out to bust some shit up. This movie takes a more nuanced look at the punks, as they are the protagonists, but they maintain that salty punk edge… for a while. Yeah man! Let’s rage! WOOOHOOO! …Wait… what?… AIIIIEEEEE!!!! Run away!
Wexler’s second touchstone is the time-honored horror standard… the cabin in the woods. Teenagers unaware of the imminent doom that is hiding in the woods, in the form of a tool bearing psychopath. You know the films I’m talking about. Wexler also takes a more clever and approachable take to the psychopath. Rules are rules, kids. Rules are rules. And Mr. Ranger here is going to enforce said rules, in a way he sees is uniquely appropriate.
So, this movie is essentially… Sid and Nancy meets Friday the 13th.
The power of this particular take is that these kids are not your classic pretty teenage victims. They’re hardened outcasts, looking to make it on their own. They are also hugely irresponsible. The Ranger is a story that revolves around Chelsea (Chloe Levine) a young rebel with bright pink hair who finds herself on the run with her cadre of punk pals after a drug raid at their favorite club ended up with one of their group stabbing a cop and forcing this party on the lam. Chelsea grew up in a National Park cabin, with her Uncle Pete (Larry Fessenden in his umpteenth role this year!) and has come into ownership of the property. She hasn’t been there since she was a child, and something inappropriate or potentially criminal had happened that forced her to leave. We see in flashback, that she had a strange relationship with a doting park ranger, Jeremy Holm, who took a real liking to her. And wouldn’t you know it? He still works there! The group runs into Mr. Ranger at a gas station convenience store, where the gang mocks the stiff and by-the-books park ranger, who informs them that the park is closed.
That, of course just eggs on the kids, who really have no other choice at the moment but to continue on for Chelsea’s cabin. When they finally get to the cabin, the punks get bored. They’re city kids, used to a much more rambunctious lifestyle… and why stop now? They take to trashing the woods with brio, spray paint in hand, bonfire blazing, and boombox blaring. Chelsea begs, pleads, and berates her friends to have a little respect for her little plot in the park, but the response amounts to “C’mon, we’re just having fun! Lighten up!”
Of course, making a ruckus in the woods is surely going to attract attention. And it turns out the Park Ranger has a real sinister side. He’s not too happy about the wanton destruction brought upon by Chelsea’s friends, and apparently, his sense of justice is disproportionate to the crimes… and he proceeds to eliminate these trespassers one by one. Holm is great in this role. He is Dudley-Do-Right with a psychopathic dissociative issue. He’s a big boy scout, with a wood axe and a shotgun, with the willingness to use those tools inappropriately. And, not surprisingly, he’s still fond of Chelsea. Awwww.
The punks: Garth (Granit Lahu), Abe (Bubba Weir), Jerk (Jeremy Pope), and Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez) have a group story arc that takes them from brash, angry young rebels, full of spit and confidence, to just being kids once they are being hunted. It is a curious dynamic that Wexler set up, where at first you sympathize with the villain, since the protagonists are so obnoxious, but once the upper hand is firmly established, you really do relate to the punks as they are clearly overmatched and out of their element. Except, that is, for Chelsea.
Levine does a fine job providing the connective tissue of this story. You’ve seen this sort of role before. The rebel with a heart of gold, who rises up when things get tough. Nothing new here, but she clearly conveys that she took shelter within the punk ethos, but the trappings of that lifestyle still are an awkward fit. She still has a bit of the little girl in her that loved being in the forest and has some respect for family and authority figures in her core ethos, and punk is a protective shell. In an oddly coincidental way, I appreciated the beat up mini-van that they used as their getaway vehicle. The van is so pedestrian, so un-cool, that even the graffiti on the side can’t mask that this is something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, much like these kids are.
For a slasher film, the film is not as gory as many in the genre. And I wouldn’t say that the film is particularly scary. But, the story is plausible and comprehensible. All the characters are fun to watch, particularly The Ranger, who can be a real hoot. The elements of humor are subtle but present. I particularly enjoyed the sounds that Holm grunts every time he gets hit. It’s comically amusing, making him almost into a video game punching bag. The acting is capable, and all the punks manage to pull off the characterization switch I referenced earlier, quite well. I never actively rooted for the kids to get killed… which is so commonplace in this sub-genre. Nobody cheers when these kids get taken out. And I point to that as a good thing.
The movie is familiar enough that you can pretty much see the path that is laid in front of you. There are no big switcheroos. No big gotcha moments. And you know that the conflict is going to come down to Chelsea, and the Ranger. Not really even a spoiler to say that. It is not uncommon nowadays to have a female protagonist who, while being a final girl, is not a scream and run-first heroine. Perhaps because the Ranger is just a man and not some unstoppable force of nature, it allows Chelsea to exhibit some action hero bravado. If you are a fan of the VHS precedent fare, then you’ll probably enjoy this movie. It’s not the next big thing in horror, but it is a well-told romp that provides you with protagonists and an antagonist who all walk that grey line of good and bad. And it also equipped with a thrashy punk soundtrack if that’s your flavor.
The Ranger is not rated, (Would probably be an R… maybe a 12 on the Horror Meter)
It does not yet have a theatrical release date, as this film is still working its way throught he film festival circuit. (Started at SXSW… the Portland Horror Film Festival… keep your eyes open for it at other upcoming festivals.)
Note: Jenn Wexler was nominated for a SXSW Game Changer award for her writing and direction of this film.