80’s horror homages are nothing new. Since their appearance on the festival circuit at the decade’s start, they’ve broken box office records (It) and racked up an impressive amount of Emmy nominations (Stranger Things). While the stylistic, campy throwbacks are often entertaining, they rarely break the mold that makes their predecessors so problematic: they always tell stories from the same perspectives.
Jenn Wexler proves an exception to this rule with her debut punk-rock slasher The Ranger, which premiered this past March at SXSW. As the film continues to rock out at festivals, reaching both the punk community and young people in need of tough heroes, we sat down with Wexler and her co-writer Giaco Furino to discuss their process of recreating tropes for a new audience.
1. You started your career as a producer, and have worked on some of the most iconic genre films of recent years; how did that experience influence your writing process?
Jenn Wexler: Thank you so much! I started working for Glass Eye Pix, under Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok. I really wanted to learn the entire process of making features, every stage of it, from development through delivery, before directing my first film. I felt producing was a good way to support other filmmakers, help them execute their visions, while learning for myself.
Around the time we were premiering Mickey Keating’s Darling, I started to think about which project I would want to direct, and I remembered Giaco’s script of The Ranger, which he had first written when we were in college together. It being my first feature, I wanted the film to feel as epic as possible, but I wasn’t sure what size budget we would have, so I just jumped in and started putting the pieces in place on my own, which then affected elements of the script. For instance, I didn’t know if we would have a location supervisor, so I just started scouting on my own, finding places I fell in love with. We had a total plan in place for how to execute the film long before we were greenlit.
Giaco Furino: Writing within those guidelines was a completely new experience for me, but it was so exciting to challenge ourselves to work in that way. We also wanted to tell a story that would move with a blistering pace, say deeper things about our world, and serve up plenty of gore and scares.
2. What drew you to the slasher subgenre for your first feature, and what inspired the concept behind the titular villain?
JW: I’ve loved slashers since I was a kid. When I was really young, I was already into spooky stuff—Are You Afraid of the Dark was my favorite show as a child, and I used to try to get my friends to hang out with me after school in graveyards. But I saw Scream when I was 10 years old and it was like a door had opened up, I had been shown this new world, and after that, I couldn’t get enough of it.
My early adolescence was spent consuming the late 90s teen slashers (along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer), which then led me to Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, and so on, on and on. They helped me get through adolescence. They felt like a best friend. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to direct, it was a pretty natural inclination to want to do something that embraced elements of the sub-genre.
GF: As for The Ranger himself, a lot of the inspiration for his character came from the look, first. Rangers have this incredibly iconic look to them, they’re pure Americana. I was always really interested in that clash between this nostalgic figure, a figure that’s seemingly really buttoned up and put together, and the raw intensity of a group of punks. And a park ranger exists in this weird middle place, they’re authority figures in uniform, but they’re also conservationists, they’re also deeply investing in preserving nature, educating, and being stewards of the land. So there’s this extra layer of complexity to the figure of an unhinged park ranger that’s a little different from a “cop gone bad” or other similar tropes.
JW: The concept of punks versus park ranger brought to mind these colorful, EC Comics-esque visuals. I loved the idea of clashing the punks’ leather and neons against the vintage-y parkland colors. Also, I thought it would be really exciting to implement a style that we don’t often see in slashers, which is another love of mine— the color palette of Lisa Frank.
3. What challenges did you face in recreating the tropes inherent in the genre? What carried over naturally and what did you have to leave behind?
JW: The tropes came pretty naturally, again because we’ve been watching these films since we were kids. But we wanted to mash those tropes against ones from our other favorite subgenres. For instance, the beginning of the film is this punks-on-the-run movie. We have a scene early on in the punk warehouse basement where the characters are talking about selling drugs, and that’s somewhat influenced by the club basement scene in Class of 1984, where the punks run a prostitution ring.
GF: That switch, from this punks-on-the-run movie to a blood-on-the-leaves story, was something I’d been interested in exploring for a long time. In that way, we’re also kind of following the tropes of classic bait-and-switch horror movies like Psycho. So as much as we were influenced by slasher films, we were also thinking a lot about how fun it is to slam on the brakes and let an entire film’s trajectory lurch to the left.
JW: When the punks arrive in the woods, we also start to explore Chelsea’s backstory. I really liked the idea of having all these characters with these over-the-top personalities, and then these slasher elements and this villain, and then at the core of it all, you have this girl who’s kind of meditating on what it’s like to be back in a place she hasn’t been to since she was a kid. She’s trying to block out all of her friends’ noise and just figure herself out.
4. Unlike many slasher films, the characters in The Ranger feel like genuine people, which increases the stakes immensely. Was this a conscious choice, and if so, how did you avoid the pitfalls of this genre?
JW: Yes, despite the film’s fun and sometimes over-the-top tone, we definitely wanted the punks to feel like your friends. They’re people you love and hate all at the same time. They rag on each other, but it’s all out of love, and at the end of the day they stand up for each other.
GF: One of my favorite things to explore in writing is the power of friendship. I know that sounds extremely corny, but I think we don’t see enough true, real, honest friendship in horror films. We get plenty of movies about “a group of friends lost in the woods,” but are those people on screen really friends? Often they seem like they have no connection outside of the borders of the script. Like, why would these people hang out? There’s no sense of history together. Our punks have been through a lot together, and this is their latest adventure.
JW: I also want to give a shout-out to our awesome cast who met a few days before production and became a family on and off the screen very quickly.
5. It’s thrilling to see how deeply this film connects to the punk community. What was your process in expressing this culture with such detail and love?
GF: I grew up listening to lots of Cali hardcore, a lot of the “first steps” punk stuff like Rollins-era Black Flag, Circle Jerks, etc., and I got my hands on a copy of The Decline of Western Civilization when my local video store was going out of business. So those were my first introductions to the punk community proper, and it was a world and community that I immediately fell in love with.
JW: The Ranger is all about a figure of authority trying to stomp out individuality, lifestyles that don’t conform to what he deems worthy. These personality types that say you have to fit into some cookie-cutter mold or else you’re living your life wrong have always been terrifying to me. I grew up in the suburbs, where there was so much pressure to be seen as “normal,” and going to punk shows was thrilling for me because it was an escape from that, and it helped me realize that it was okay to want other things than that. So all those feelings are really built into the core of the script.
In terms of producing and directing the film, we really wanted to include the punk community as much as possible, from crew members, to throwing our opening party scene at punk club Don Pedro in Brooklyn with the band Rotten UK, to our costumes, and our soundtrack. Our approach to shooting—a bunch of kids going out to the woods with a shared love of filmmaking—was pretty punk rock in its ethos as well (which is how we approach a lot of the films we make at GEP).
6. What do you hope people come away with after watching this film?
JW: While The Ranger on one level is a fun popcorn movie, there are deeper themes—most notably, about finding your own authentic self in a world where others are quick to tell you who they think you should be—that I hope viewers engage with as well.
GF: After seeing The Ranger, I really hope people think twice before littering in the woods.
Now that you’ve tackled this territory, what other stories can we hope to see from you?
JW: I want to continue exploring the genre—and mashing up sub-genres in new ways!
GF: And I’m going to keep exploring those themes of friendship in horror, and pushing those ideas as far as I can take them.
The Ranger continues its festival run this summer.
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid