[SXSW Review] Punk Horror Film ‘The Ranger’ Has an Identity Crisis
Slasher films are a dime a dozen nowadays, so it’s always a treat when one gets released. There were high hopes walking into Jenn Wexler‘s The Ranger because of the pedigree behind it. The film is the directorial debut of Wexler, who has produced such horror gems as Mickey Keating’s Darling (my review) and Ana Asensio’s phenomenal Most Beautiful Island (my review). She knows what makes a good horror film, but unfortunately, not much of that knowledge is on display in The Ranger, a dull and forgettable entry in the slasher sub-genre.
The Ranger sees Chelsea (Chloe Levine, The Transfiguration, The OA) and her friends escaping a police raid at a punk rock show they are attending. In the scuffle, Chelsea’s boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu, The Sinner) stabs a police officer, leading to panic among the group. Rather than turn themselves in, they decide to hide out at Chelsea’s dead uncle’s cabin in the woods. While there, they cross paths with a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, Mr. Robot, House of Cards) who takes the rules of the national park a little too seriously and has a mysterious connection to Chelsea. It isn’t long before the group of punks are in a fight for survival against the resourceful madman.
Pretty fun premise, right? If only the script, penned by Wexler and Giaco Furino, had taken advantage of it. The Ranger just isn’t fun, which is a real bummer and particularly unforgivable for a film screening in the Midnighters section of the SXSW Film Festival. Not helping matters is that, at 76 minutes (without credits), the film feels about three times as long, mostly thanks to a slowly-paced second act that bogs the film down. It takes nearly 40 minutes before one of the protagonists even gets injured and another 10 minutes for someone to get killed. That leaves about 25 minutes of the movie to kill off the remaining characters and by that point, the film has already lost its audience. This isn’t to say that a horror film needs non-stop kills to be successful, but if you’re going to drag it out then at least make your characters compelling and that is something that The Ranger doesn’t do.
The actors do what they can, but the roles are all underwritten and the characters are unlikable to the point that you’ll be checking your watch waiting for them to die (again: not a problem if you start killing them off sooner). The fact that these kids are punks barely factors into the film at all. We see them at a show in the film’s opening minutes but once they make it to the cabin their identities as punks become irrelevant. They are all dressed like punks but nothing from that subculture is ever discussed or explored in the film. The titular villain is played with gusto by Holm, and while the occasional pre-kill recitation of national park laws inspires a chuckle, he just isn’t memorable. He kills these kids because they are disrespectful, which makes sense, but if you’re going to have a deranged park ranger be your villain then have some fun with it! Give him a schtick. Make the method of murder somehow relate to the law he quotes before he murders someone. And for the love of God, don’t kill someone with a gun in your slasher movie.
The Ranger’s biggest problem is that it suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a white-knuckle thriller like Green Room, a comical horror film like Return of the Living Dead or a ridiculous slasher about an authority figure gone mad like Psycho Cop. The Ranger tries to be all of those things at once and doesn’t fully succeed at being any of them. You don’t really know if the film is trying to scare you or make you laugh, so it just ends up being boring.
It’s not all bad though. The characters are racially and sexually diverse, which is a rarity for the horror genre (this has nothing to do with the quality of the film, mind you, but it is still nice to see). Despite a low budget, there are some great gore effects on display (a bear trap sequence is particularly nasty). And while Wexler’s screenplay is lacking, her direction shows promise and her knowledge of the horror genre shows. Her camera work with cinematographer James Siewert give the film a distinct ’80s aesthetic despite being set in the present day, so anyone looking for some throwback horror could certainly do worse. Also, fans of punk rock will find plenty to love about the film’s soundtrack.
The Ranger is ultimately a missed opportunity for the punk horror sub-genre. It may seem like I’m criticizing it for not being what I wanted it to be, but I would be okay with it being something different if it was good. What could have either been a ridiculously fun time or a suspense-filled slasher is instead reduced to a boring slog of a film. Filled with obnoxious characters and an unmemorable villain, there isn’t much to recommend about the Ranger. Fans of ’80s slashers might want to check it out if it gets distribution, but all others need not apply.
The Ranger is currently seeking distribution and does not have a release date.