[What The Fest?! 2018] THE RANGER Is Nostalgia Done Right
Imagine this. You’re fifteen, staying up late with a group of your best buds, pizza piping hot with sodas in hand. Before you lies a VHS tape in a red case. You know what that means: this movie doesn’t fuck around. Before you pop the edge of the plastic inserts that hold the case shut your brain is already conjuring images dripping the same crimson red of the case in your hand. The tape slips into the player, the buzz of tracking adjusting on your set. There’s no turning back now from the potential dangers that lie ahead, your heart skipping a beat in gleeful anticipation. Now stop for a second! In your mind, what does that movie look like? What feelings do you get, placing yourself into that stock scenario of every horror fan that was ever inducted into this dark club at a young age? Is it a Creepshow, or Halloween? The anxious excitement the first time you sneakily watched The Exorcist? Those feelings, that exciting first discovery, are shared with the filmmakers of The Ranger, a monument to the nostalgic childhood of Blockbuster Kids.
Directed by Jenn Wexler, The Ranger introduces us to Chelsea, a bundle of uncertain anxieties. She’s just narrowly escaped getting busted by the cops at an underground punk show in Boston with two bricks of a popular street drug called Echo, but also her boyfriend just stabbed a cop and with their three other friends they decide to lay low at Chelsea’s Uncle’s cabin in New York state, the site of a tragic event a decade before that left her Uncle dead. Also on the mountaintop where Chelsea’s cabin is is our titular character: The Ranger. Equal parts Smokey the Bear and Maniac Cop, The Ranger has a connection to Chelsea’s past that sets her apart from almost every Final Girl out there. What works the most in The Ranger is the unexpected, much like the film itself which has crashed onto the scene making it one of the most hotly buzzed horror films on the festival circuit, and for good reason. This is a tight 80m callback to the 80’s slasher of our millenial youth, but it wonderfully strikes that delicate balance that most films of this nature fail to do: being its own film first.
But, this is a slasher movie, and by their nature they aren’t perfect films. The hardest balancing act for slashers to do is the give and take of likeability in the characters. Look, we want to root and cheer when our big bad killer knocks these kids off, but we also have to be on their side somewhat. Now when I watch films that feature teenagers, or at least a subset of kids that I can recognize myself in when I was that age, I always ask myself: was I really that much of a dick? I thought I was pushing the system, sticking it to the man in my own little way, but god. Was I ever as bad as the kids in this film! Probably, to a degree, but the filmmakers make it hard to root for these disposable teens (outside of our Final Girl Chelsea), even when I know I’m supposed to be. And look, Blood Rage is one of my favorite slasher movies, so this aversion isn’t to unlikeable characters being used as narrative devices, the problem is I had a hard time believing Chelsea would have stayed friends with this group for years. All the drugs in the world couldn’t shield her from their lack of empathy. Chelsea’s boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu) seethes this Logan Paul-esque aesthetic of entitled douchebaggery while he runs around flirting with the sole other girl on their trip because OF COURSE he would. The other friends fare better, but not by much. Though this is a testament to the actors, who play these hard to like characters with panache and makes you like them really as much as you possibly can, especially the punk rock power couple of Abe and Jerk, a refreshing inclusion of queer punk identity.
The film though finally clicked into place when our titular killer shows his true colors, dispensing Forest Rangers codes of conduct in a truly hilarious and brutal way. And for some slasher purists, they may be averse to the inclusion of this broadly comic sensibility to this tank of a villain, but I’ve personally always loved the wise cracking quasi-supernatural killers like Freddy Krueger or Sammi Curr from Trick or Treat, and here too The Ranger gives us the tiniest clues and throwaway lines to give fans a sliver of hope that he may return for a sequel. But typically in the past when we’ve seen this brand of ridiculous 80s slasher homages with a gimmick killer, it’s forced. Painfully forced. The over-the-top quality of these films that we loved in the 80s is pushed so much that they become camp. But not in The Ranger. This truly feels tonally like something you would have grabbed for a late night movie marathon back in high school, jacked up on caffeine and pizza grease, and despite the flaws that the film does have, it’s that experience that will make The Ranger a film fans will be flocking to when it’s released.