“Giaco (Furino) and I really wanted to make a movie that clashes 80s’ punk movies and slashers, and has these outrageous characters in this heightened comic book world. However, we wanted to circle it all around this character study of a girl who’s trying to figure herself out. So, there’s a lot of different sub-genres at play.”
Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger (2018) is ripping across the festival circuit at the moment, bringing together the best mix of punk and horror since the classic days of the Misfits. The girl in question is Chelsea, played by Chloe Levine, who we meet at the beginning of the film as both a young girl in the care of a creepy park ranger played by Jeremy Holm, and as a young adult at a punk club in the city. What we get in short order is a portrait of a girl in a life crisis. We don’t know what happened to the child, but it only takes minutes before we see her becoming a punk rock Bonnie Parker.
I got to speak to Wexler over the phone on the eve of her journey to the United Kingdom for FrightFest where The Ranger did very well, as it has everywhere it’s played so far often with Wexler, Furino, producer Heather Buckley, and cast there to present and sometimes feature a punk band as an opening act. I’ve been seeing Wexler’s name as a producer on a few of the best indie films in recent years; she helped usher in Darling (Mickey Keating), Psychopaths (Keating), and Like Me (Robert Mockler), all of which have truly unique and exciting visual language. Now, with The Ranger, we see what a force of nature she is at the helm of her own film.
In addition to Levine and Holm, The Ranger also stars Granit Lahu as Chelsea’s boyfriend Garth, Jeremy Pope as Jerk, Bubba Weiler as Abe, and Amanda Grace Benitez as Amber. They are a group of punks from the city who have a serious run in with the law and have to get the hell out of Dodge. Chelsea had spoken at times of her Uncle Pete’s (played by the great Larry Fessenden in a cameo role) cabin in the mountains and Garth takes control, forcing Chelsea to go along with it. No one knows about the darkness in her past, and what going up the mountain might mean for her.
“This is a memory that Chelsea has,” Wexler says. “And anything that happens to you when you’re a kid, any traumatizing thing, she’s thought about this over, and over, and over again and even she’s not quite sure exactly what happened. We were really into how memories morph and ‘The Ranger’ has been this boogeyman character to her all of her life.”
Who is the Ranger? We know he’s our villain, our Jason, from the promo material out there. That’s no surprise, but we don’t know who he is to Chelsea as the gang makes their way into the forest. It’s these questions that build the suspense and tension in the first third of the film as Chelsea and the Ranger become fated to see each other again.
Like with almost any slasher movie, if the killer doesn’t work the movie falls apart. So, landing Jeremy Holm for the role goes a long way to propelling this story, because he can convincingly play menacing, charming and funny in the space of a breath.
“Jeremy was friends with my co-writer Giaco and Jeremy is in these TV shows House of Cards and Mr. Robot. So, while Giaco and I were writing the script he was like ‘yo, check out Jeremy Holm,’ and I started watching those shows and I was automatically so into his look, because I felt like he looked like an evil Superman. Then we finally felt like the script was done and ready, so we sent it to him and we had a meeting. He loved the script and we totally connected. In that first meeting, he started going into character as The Ranger. And I was already freaked out by him. I said, ‘this is great, you are ‘The Ranger.’ I wanted our killer to have that kind of figure, like that big, brooding, classic slasher movie killer. Although I was interested in a killer with snappy one liners, unlike a Michael Myers or a Jason who doesn’t speak.”
The Ranger is far more than a slasher film. If you removed the horror aspect you would be left with an engaging arthouse character drama. It explores childhood trauma, the bonds of friendship under incredible strain, gas lighting, trying to be heard when everyone else is shouting over you, and then there’s the inescapable political sub-text.
“We wrote it before Trump was elected. We shot it in 2017, but Giaco and I wrote it before that. Growing up as a fan of horror and in the punk scene I certainly had an affinity for rebellion, juvenile rebellion over authority and I’ve always been afraid of authority figures. But I think in the months leading up to Trump being elected, you know, we like a lot of people were getting more and more freaked out by the new things that parts of America were grasping on to and it started to feel like, ‘what world are we living in?’ I think, like, not super-intentionally, Giaco, my co-writer, and I kind of…you know, our way to fight against these very bad feelings that were coming up and try to incorporate some of it into ‘The Ranger,’ so we did want to make our punks a very diverse group of individuals-they embraced individuality, they embraced creativity, like that’s what they stand for.
And the Ranger is a symbol of over-bearing authority. I think a lot of it also had to do with my own-I put a lot of myself into Chelsea when we were writing it, although it was pre-Me Too movement and everything, I was kind of funneling my anxiety about feeling like people were telling me what I should be and what I should do and I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of dudes telling me, you know, voicing their opinions and I felt like I wasn’t being heard a lot of the time. So, I think all those anxieties just went into the Chelsea character.”
While slasher movies have never really gone away, they’ve certainly not enjoyed the box office success of Friday the 13th or A Nightmare On Elm Street since the 1980s, besides Scream (1996), of course. In fact, I think The Ranger is probably the best slasher we’ve seen since Scream. In terms of storytelling and craft, ‘The Ranger’ blows a lot of the classics out of the water.
“I personally was ten years old when Scream came out. And it was a gateway film for me and it totally opened the doors to horror. I mean, I was a lonely teenager and horror movies, discovering the rich history of horror, starting with watching Scream, it was like a substitute friend for me, in my early teenage years. I think a lot of people roll their eyes when they think of the late 90s’ teen slashers, but for me it was such a special time. Movies like ‘Scream,’ and ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer,’ and ‘Urban Legends,’ the floodgates opened with them. As an adult, since graduating college, I’ve worked for Fear Net, which was a horror TV channel, and now I work for Glass Eye Pix, so really my whole adult career has been dedicated to working in the horror business and it all started when I was ten years old and I discovered ‘Scream.’”
Going back to the characters in Chelsea’s world, we find a group of fleshed-out individuals, not just stock victims waiting for the ax to fall. Garth knows how to say the right things, do the right things, but his true nature is controlling, bordering on sociopathy. He treats Chelsea like sh^% and orders her around, and then acts like she’s the one overreacting. That’s gas lighting, kids. Don’t do that.
Amber seems like she may have come from a better place than the others, at least to some extent; it’s her van they escape in, and she has money for drugs. More importantly, she takes the others’ friendship for granted as she moves in on Garth behind Chelsea’s back. My two favorite characters were Jerk and Abe. Despite their flaws, both Garth and Amber are ultimately likable people who are sh%^$# in very human ways.
Jerk and Abe are almost like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the story. They’re not exactly responsible for anything going down, but they’re sticking by their friends. They’re also a gay couple. What I liked about their relationship was that it was actually treated like a ‘traditional’ relationship. The movie didn’t have to slow down or stop to explain that they’re in love.
“Just to give a little background; Giaco and I went to school for screen writing together and this was a screenplay he had written for his senior screenplay and I was so into the idea of punks versus the park ranger. Then we graduated school and got real jobs, and we didn’t know how to make movies-so he just put it in a drawer for a couple of years. And then seven years later I started working for Glass Eye Pix and I was learning how to make movies and I called him and said, ‘hey can you find that script? I really want to direct it as a feature.’ So, when Giaco and I sat down, and we had the old script with us and we were, like, ok, because at first it was more of a straight body count slasher movie and when we reconnected to work on it, we really wanted to develop the characters and Chelsea’s back story.”
“And one of the first things we did, as we discussed who her friends should be, we decided Jerk and Abe are in a relationship. It’s not a device or a plot point. It’s just who they are, because we wanted to put into it the way we feel in our own lives. You know? I feel like I want to see more of that on screen anyway, more diversity without diversity being a plot point. I started working with Jeremy Pope and Bubba Weiler and they really brought those characters to life. They just really connected. Their chemistry was just really insane. I didn’t have that many conversations with them about that relationship, except that they asked me how long Jerk and Abe had been together. I said, ‘oh, two years,’ and they said, ‘cool.’ And they really built out the nuances of that relationship.”
The Ranger is all about coming to terms with your true nature: who Chelsea was as a child, who Chelsea is in her heart. And you can feel that authenticity and yearning to be heard throughout the film. The voices of Wexler and Furino are electric which is perfectly complimented by James Siewert’s cinematography and Andrew Gordon Macpherson’s score. Not to mention the best punk rock soundtrack since The Return of the Living Dead (1985).
“Working in this horror world, and I find this true with punk, I started going to punk shows as a teenager, and I was growing up in suburbia, and punk shows were the first place where I realized individuality was embraced and I could throw myself around to music and I could get my angst out. It was a totally normal place for that. So, punk shows and horror movies were a big part of my development as a teenager, but I also say that in both of those worlds there’s a cool kids club and you have to prove that you belong.”
“I felt these pressures as a teenager and also just working in the horror industry there’s so many people, like, testing you, ‘have you heard of this band, have you seen this movie?’ Making The Ranger was like me coming to terms with that and being like, fuck all that. In my heart I love these things. You can see in the movie the punks have their code of conduct and the Ranger has his and Chelsea is being expected to live up to all these different rules being placed on her by both of these people. Even though the punks and The Ranger are totally different, they both have these rules and Chelsea just needs to figure out herself.”
Thanks to Kaila Sarah Hier for setting up the interview.