Indie horror movie The Ranger generated some low-key positive buzz in 2018. A fun retro-trailer that harkened to old school PSA’s undoubtedly helped. Critics also seemed mildly impressed with The Ranger when it debuted at SXSW. Of course, ‘lost in the woods’ horror movies are a familiar genre staple. But The Ranger promises a refreshing subversion of this horror trope. So is The Ranger worth a trip to your local national park? Or should you just dust off your Don’t Go In The Woods DVD?
After a tragic confrontation with police, Chelsea and her punk rock friends make a quick retreat out of the city. Now possibly wanted for murder, the friends head to a national park to hide out in Chelsea’s old family cabin. But when the unruly teens start breaking park rules, they quickly run afoul of a rigid park ranger. This same park ranger shares a past with Chelsea, and seems intent on dishing out more than fines.
The Ranger Hits and Misses Its Slasher Notes
Sometimes advanced hype isn’t a good thing. Though it’s marketed as a ’80’s slasher-throwback, The Ranger technically only checks off a few boxes on the subgenre. On the one hand, The Ranger features youth transgressing against boundaries only to be ‘punished’. However, it doesn’t really follow a ‘stalk and slash’ approach. Unlike Summer of 84, The Barn, or Steven Mena’s Malevolence, director Jenn Wexler isn’t tapping into that ‘80’s VHS aesthetic.
While the gore is relatively sparse, Ashley K. Thomas’ special effects makeup consistently impresses.
In addition, the body count is low and the death scenes lack variability and inventiveness. Other recent redux-slashers, like Terrifier, set a high bar that The Ranger misses. While the gore is relatively sparse, Ashley K. Thomas’ special effects makeup consistently impresses. What’s on screen is good, but it falls a little short of expectations. In spite of creepy set up, The Ranger also drags a little in the early-going. Wexler fails to establish a sense of threat until the midway point.
Ambitious But Murky Storytelling
In addition to directing, Wexler shares writing credits with Giaco Furino. As a clear plus, Wexler and Furino aren’t interested in telling the ‘same old story’. Unfortunately, The Ranger’s story seems to pull the movie in different directions. One story pits unruly young punk rockers against an older establishment figure. Are Wexler and Furino spinning the conservative parables of original ‘80’s slashers? Conversely, Chelsea’s tragic history and her friends’ run-in with police raise more complex ideas about confronting your past.
Things get weird, but never so weird as to leave you with the kind of indelible imagery that leads to cult status.
However, by the end of the movie, neither idea feels completely fleshed out. The Ranger then dovetails into strange territory in the last 10 to 15 minutes or so. But the movie doesn’t even embrace its own idiosyncrasies. Things get weird, but never so weird as to leave you with the kind of indelible imagery that leads to cult status.
Unlikeable Characters Even For This Subgenre
One of The Ranger’s biggest problems lies with its supporting cast. Chloe Levine is absolutely amazing as Chelsea. Given a well-written character, Levine plays a morally ambiguous ‘Final Girl’ that breathes some fresh air into the subgenre. In contrast, Chelsea’s friends are thoroughly unlikeable. It’s difficult to create suspense when you have little investment in the characters. Green Room adopted punk rock characters as a means to ‘resist’ or ‘play off’ of its white supremacist villains. Comparatively, Wexler’s punk rock cast are the kind of characters you’re waiting to see get killed.
As for The Ranger’s titular villain, Jeremy Holm hits all the right notes. His park ranger mixes The Stepfather’s authoritarian mean streak with Mark Duplass’ Creep. Slasher movies need memorable villains. More of Holm’s ‘ranger would have been a definite plus for the movie. As it stands, The Ranger feels like it under-utilizes the character.
The Ranger Is Good But Underwhelming
To some extent, The Ranger suffers the same problem as another 2018 indie horror movie, Summer of ’84. It’s a good movie that doesn’t quite meet the lofty expectations set out by the advanced hype. As a filmmakers, Wexler is clearly talented and has a feel for the genre. But The Ranger too often draws comparisons to better movies. It always feels like it’s inching close to achieving something good, yet consistently falls short.