Horror is a film genre that goes through cycles. Somebody has a great, subversive, scary idea that taps our collective subconscious. Then the concept gets imitated, and stretched thin through a series of sequels, until eventually it is treated as a parody of itself and we all laugh knowingly at it, defanging it. At which point, hopefully, a new idea has entered the pop culture ether. Which is why it’s so rare to find a new horror film that is inspired by its predecessors without paying tribute — one that’s having fun, without poking fun. A film that plays like an unearthed entry in a previous era of scary movies, yet still breaks a certain amount of new ground within its type. The Ranger, the first feature directed by longtime film producer Jenn Wexler, pulls off just such a feat. It’s not trying to redefine the genre or start a new cycle. Instead, it feels like a movie I could have picked up in the horror aisle of my local video rental joint at any time in my youth — a VHS tape that has been sitting on a shelf, forgotten since the 1980s, and somehow just now got noticed.
Only the image quality is way better, obviously.
The obligatory teens at the center of The Ranger are a group of unruly punk rockers, who run into some trouble with the law and decide to head for the hills… or, really, the mountains. Chelsea (Chloe Levine) leads her friends to her uncle’s old abandoned cabin, tucked away in the midst of national forestland. They leave their van by the road and hike up with nothing but some stolen six-packs and a shit-ton of Echo (a pink, powdery drug that you can snort or inject — a hybrid high of every other drug you can imagine). But their arrival is noticed by the local ranger (Jeremy Holm), who will do anything to make sure visitors obey the rules of the national park. In a flashback, we see that the ranger met Chelsea when she was a child, on the day her uncle died, and forged a bond with her that he remembers to this day.
You know the kind of bond I’m talking about. The creepy kind.
You also probably know where this story is going from the start, but that doesn’t mean you’ll recognize every twist as it’s happening. The punks are picked off one by one, in effectively gruesome and surprising ways, until the climax reveals that there is more to the ranger’s lunacy than anyone could have predicted. The final showdown is as picturesque as it is viscerally brutal to witness — and ultimately very satisfying. The punk soundtrack and aesthetic, like the made-up drug and the lack of cell phones, lends a timelessness to the film. Though the story may feel like a throwback, it doesn’t really take place in any particular time at all. What betrays its more modern perspective is the diverse cast of characters, which don’t fall easily into the usual stereotypes. Chelsea is a tough loner, looking for a place to belong. Her boyfriend may have dragged her into trouble, but she didn’t mindlessly follow him down that path. She is her own agent. With her friends she has formed a fucked-up surrogate family, prone to squabbles and flirting and none too healthy, but as the stakes rise the group always sticks together.
The characters are ultimately what sets The Ranger apart from its inspirations, and nowhere is that more true than in the titular Ranger himself. You may recognize Jeremy Holm from roles on House of Cards or Mr. Robot, but what he brings to his villain in this film is an unhinged blend of upstanding authority and unsettling menace. When I say that his performance, and the role itself, reminded me strongly of Larry Drake in the severely underappreciated Dr. Giggles, please understand that I mean this as a very high compliment indeed.
Drake took his campy doctor-themed baddie seriously — he relished the inherent cheese, but didn’t play it with a wink and a grin. Holm manages the same feat, rolling all the silly park-themed one-liners off his tongue with just the right amount of authentic venom. Not every horror icon is defined by a single weapon, or a weakness, or a frightening origin. And not all of them end up spawning sequels. So while it may be too early to tell whether Holm will return to guard the National Forest the only way he knows how in a future installment, for now, I’d say that The Ranger, and The Ranger, works pretty wonderfully as an off-beat and exciting new icon of horror. I haven’t seen a movie quite like it, but it already feels like I grew up watching it. Now if only they’d release it on VHS…
The Ranger had its World Premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Conference.