Drugged up, strung out, and starry eyed, our leading lady begins her story in a mosh pit. A hazy, neon-coated fog hanging around her head, our pink-haired punk princess Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is suddenly snapped back to reality as a sweaty leather-clad rocker slams into her, and she shoves him right back. Everything is coming up roses at this little underground concert for Chels and her friends, Garth (Granit Lahu), Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), Abe (Bubba Weiler) and his boyfriend (Jeremy Pope), all of whom are currently hopped up on a pink upper called “echo” – that is, until the cops come bursting through the door, and this wild gig comes to a screeching halt.
Once outside, Chelsea gets cornered by an officer in the alley, but just when it appears she’s been caught, her slacker boyfriend Garth steps in to make everything worse. Stabbing the cop, Garth sets a crazed series of events into motion, forcing Chelsea and her friends to go off on the run, while simultaneously forcing Chelsea to confront her past, as the gang hides out in her childhood home – an isolated cabin in the woods. Guarded by the local Park Ranger, who has no time for anyone’s games, this infrastructure may appear like the perfect safe house for a couple of miscreants looking to wash away their mistakes with a can of cold beer, but they’ll soon find that their biggest folly was not in messing with urban authority figures back in the city, but in assuming any sort of proprietorship over this mountain.
Directed by longtime Glass Eye Pix producer and first time feature filmmaker Jenn Wexler, The Ranger flips the script on the traditional horror movie in a few noteworthy ways. First of all, Wexler does something remarkably simple but undeniably sharp – she switches up the cast of characters. Wexler’s lineup includes a motley crew of punks, adorned with bright pink hair, leopard print fur coats, leather jackets, loud voices, and don’t-give-a-fuck attitudes. None of them are saints, but they’re not necessarily sinners either. This entourage features two lively women, one person of color – who actually has lines and isn’t just a quiet contributor to the gore factor – and a loving homosexual couple. While The Ranger villain still reads true to 1980s nostalgia, the body count hits the audience harder than the movies many of us grew up watching because unlike the exciting but undeniably surfaced glory days of the Friday the 13th franchise, these victims are actually people that we can relate to. It’s the kind of clever simplicity that makes you wonder why this hasn’t been done before. Like if Cabin in the Woods didn’t resort to being meta to mix up the slasher formula.
Powered by the soul of garage rock, a luminescent, bright pink palette that slowly bleeds into every scene, and the ever-present motif of the wolf, The Ranger is bursting with vitality. As Chelsea’s past trauma slowly unfolds through a series of dreamy flashbacks, all pointing to a personal history with violence, and with The Ranger himself, it becomes clear that all this time, Chelsea has been looking for her pack. Her boyfriend Garth angrily calls her a “tourist” at one point, pointing out that she has never truly considered herself to be the same as her punk posse, and it’s true – because she’s not like them. The wolf within Chelsea has been waiting in the wings for years, waiting to be unleashed, and it’s all brought to light here, on this mountain, through a powerfully raw performance by Chloe Levine.
The only real issue the film has is with The Ranger himself, played a bit too over-the-top by Jeremy Holm. It seems as though Wexler and the gang were going for a William Lustig Maniac Cop type of vibe with their villain, but wound up with a performance that’s a little sillier and a little less sinister. It’s a shame, because so much of the movie revolves around his character, but if anything, it just makes the movie lean that much harder into that campy ‘80s vibe.