Is The Ranger a period piece? It could be. Twenty-first-century technology doesn’t factor into the plot, but walkie-talkies and a big-ass cassette boombox do. Then again, most of the movie takes place in the woods, where smartphones are pretty useless anyway, and the gang of itinerant teenage punks who star in the movie don’t have money for iPhones, and wouldn’t trust them if they did.
Perhaps that’s what gives The Ranger its throwback flair: Outside of a few urban enclaves—like the NYC scene director Jenn Wexler and producer Heather Buckley gathered together for a concert scene early on in the film—punks don’t really stalk the cul-de-sacs and shopping malls of America like they did back in the ’80s. They don’t appear as stock characters in slasher movies much anymore, either, whose conventions make up the other half of The Ranger’s charmingly scrappy, lo-fi equation. Wexler has interpreted her influences thoughtfully and inverted them cleverly. It’s the smart kind of dumb fun.
Rule No. 1 of a good slasher movie is you need a memorable villain to knock off all those obnoxious teenagers (and they’re especially obnoxious in this one). The Ranger has that in the title character, played by House Of Cards and Mr. Robot’s Jeremy Holm. Like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, he’s intimidatingly hulking, creative in his kills, and seemingly unstoppable, and like Freddy Krueger he’s full of quotable one-liners. (“This isn’t a place for you kids to party!” he bellows at one point, mid-gruesome violence.)
The second rule is that you need a smart, sympathetic, and capable final girl. Here, that’s Chelsea (Chloe Levine), who at the beginning of the film we see as a young girl being comforted by a park ranger after her uncle Pete (Larry Fessenden) is killed in a hunting accident deep in the woods of upstate New York. Years later, Chelsea returns to her uncle’s cabin with a gang of her miscreant friends, on the run from the cops after her asshole boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu), stabbed a cop in the melee after a warehouse show gone wrong. Despite Chelsea’s protestations, her boneheaded friends immediately start chucking beer cans everywhere and tagging trees with spray paint, attracting the attention of the by-now-thoroughly-unhinged park ranger who rescued Chelsea when she was a kid.
It’s clear what’s going to happen as soon as Chelsea and her friends show up at the cabin, but the formulaic nature of the slasher genre is part of its charm. What matters is whether the inevitable kill scenes are executed with gnarly gore and/or morbid wit, and while The Ranger doesn’t have the budget to push its blood and guts as far as some other films in the subgenre—props for using practical effects anyway, though—it’s got enough of the latter to give horror audiences the gleeful giggles. And co-writer/director Wexler does have some surprises in store in the third act, where slasher tropes are subverted in interesting, character-driven ways.
With its blaring hardcore punk soundtrack and aggressive neon color palette, The Ranger isn’t remotely subtle. Given the type of movie it is, that’s mostly a good thing, though the in-your-face style gives away some of the aforementioned character-driven twists earlier than it should. All in all, it should be taken for what it is: a loving tribute to the counterculture tentpoles of punk rock and horror movies (dig the Return Of The Living Dead reference right before everything goes nuts), made in suitably low-budget, DIY style by a promising new filmmaker. And like any good punk would, she plays it fast, loud, and with both middle fingers high in the air.