Writer: Giaco Furino, Jenn Wexler
Cast: Chloe Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Amanda Grace Benitez
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 77mins
What’s the story: A gang of punks flee to the woods in upstate New York after a violent run-in with law enforcement. But, Chelsea (Levine) has history with the park’s ranger (Holm), a man with a rigid attitude to enforcing the rules.
What’s the verdict: Jenn Wexler scores a horror home run with her confident directorial debut. Equal parts Green Room, Friday the 13th and The Blair Witch Project, The Ranger rises above empty pastiche due to Wexler’s deft shuffling of tones and Chloe Levine’s nuanced lead performance.
A disquieting pre-credits prologue opens in a vast national park. A young Chelsea being cared for by Holm’s overly mindful ranger. Smash cut past the credits and an adult Chelsea is running with a punk gang looking to score big off two bricks of cocaine.
When the police crash their party, Chelsea and her crew, led by boyfriend Garth (Lahu), find themselves hiding out in the cabin of her dead uncle (cameo’ing cult director Larry Fessenden in flashback).
But, in the vast park the Ranger is the Law. Still creepily overbearing and with zero tolerance regarding infringement of park rules.
Witty, snotty, bloody and running a smash n’ grab 77 minutes, The Ranger is amphetamine fueled horror-comedy. A narcotic opening act is polluted- bloodstream mayhem, its fractured energy keeping the audience as skittish as the lead character.
A successful shift into a lower gear creates a slow-burn sense of dread as the woods themselves seem to bide their time while Chelsea’s gang run riot.
When rural justice is unleashed, Wexler and co-writer Furino deliver gleeful 80s-style splatter set-pieces. Fun to be sure, and gorehounds will howl, but The Ranger is strongest when focussing on character and atmosphere.
Balancing out the played-for-laughs bloodletting is a climactic showdown packing a twist that colours previous events a darker hue. This ending leaves open sequel possibilities that could take the story into even thornier territory.
Levine is a perfect audience anchor, tremulous yet resilient and a formidable opponent to the crazed park official. House of Cards regular Holm has a ball chewing the woodland scenery, delivering national park regulations alongside axe blows and worse. The supporting cast, including All Cheerleaders Die’s Amanda Grace Benitez as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl from Hell, relish bringing abrasive characters to grating life.
Crowd-pleasing stuff, and based on Wexler’s handling of atmosphere here, may we recommend a ghost story for her sophomore follow-up?