Gut the Punks! is a monthly dissection of genre film with some loose connection to punk rock music and culture. This month at Nightmare On Film Street, we’re talking about Cops n’ Killers, which can either be interpreted as cops who will stop at nothing to track down a cold-blooded killer, or cops who themselves are killers, operating with total immunity from the law. For this month’s column, I will be examining the 2018 slasher The Ranger, directed by Jenn Wexler and produced by Heather Buckley, focusing on the titular character and the bitter rivalry between punks and law enforcement.
Chelsea (Chloë Levine) is a young punk rock girl haunted by her past and feeling out of place in the world. One night, while at a show in an underground venue, Chelsea’s hot-headed boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu) proposes selling a new drug called echo; a business offer that lovers Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Babba Weiler) enthusiastically agree to. But before they can discuss specifics, cops raid the club. Chelsea is cornered by an officer, who is about to arrest her, until Garth jumps at the cop, stabbing him in the shoulder. Garth acts as if he just saved his girlfriend from the cops, but in reality, was more concerned about the two kilos of echo he hid in Chelsea’s bag.
“Back in the 1980s, punk rock was viewed as a violent subculture, so cops would frequently put on riot gear, raid illegal venues, and bash kids with nightsticks…”
Now wanted criminals, the four friends decide to skip town, taking fellow punkette Amber’s (Amanda Grace Benitez) van. Garth suggests hiding out at Chelsea’s cabin in the woods, despite Chelsea’s refusal. She had inherited the cabin after her uncle was killed in an accident, and it brings up too many bad memories. On the way to the mountain, the punks encounter a park ranger (Jeremy Holm) who sternly warns them that they must abide by the rules. But being the punks that they are, they refuse to listen, only to find out too late that breaking the rules of the park comes with a death sentence, carried out by the sadistic and cunning Ranger.
Punks have always hated the police and figures of authority, as evidenced by the popular slogan “All Cops Are Bastards” or simply, “ACAB”. Yes, the politicians and the heads of state are enemy number one to the rebel kind, but as the fascist rulers reside in their ivory towers, the police are roaming the streets enforcing their totalitarian agenda. The common mentality believes officers had joined the force with the best of intentions, and only a few corrupt bad apples have spoiled the profession. However, ACAB dictates that as long as they’re part of an inherently broken and oppressive system, every single cop qualifies as a bastard. Although the Ranger is civil in his approach when he first meets the punks, they outright disrespect him to his face for the simple reason that he’s law enforcement.
Back in the 1980s, punk rock was viewed as a violent subculture, so cops would frequently put on riot gear, raid illegal venues, and bash kids with nightsticks as they exited. Black Flag saw a lot of violence at the hands of police while on tour, which they describe in their song Police Story: “Understand we’re fighting a war we can’t win / They hate us, we hate them.” The combative and trigger-happy nature of police is represented on the movie’s soundtrack with the song Shot In The Head by The Authorities
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Police were eventually viewed as members of a gang who had permission from the state to kill on sight, if they felt it was necessary— though this is more of a reality for black youth than for white suburban punks. As tensions grew, punk bands would write songs justifying the murder of police as an extreme way of shedding light on police brutality: kill cops because cops kill. In Body Count’s infamous single Cop Killer, frontman Ice-T fantasizes about killing members of the LAPD in retaliation for the Rodney King beatings, singing “Better you than me.” Hell, even the The Ranger soundtrack has a song called Cop Killer by the Grim. But for the dozens of bands advocating for the killing of cops, not a single one has practiced what they preached. The closest anyone ever got was when Scott “Stza” Sturgeon of Leftöver Crack—who wrote such songs as One Dead Cop—was arrested for throwing donuts at police officers.
“[…] would you rather serve several years in prison with the possibility of parole, or risk almost certain death in a remote area at the hands of a highly-trained maniac?”
Had things not escalated at the punk show, it’s possible Chelsea and her friends could have walked away with tickets for unlawful assembly. Chelsea could have ditched her backpack or, if she knew her rights, could have refused to open her bag without a warrant. Had the cops found the drugs, it’s possible it could have come with a stiff prison sentence for drug possession or trafficking if we are to believe the events take place at the height of the War on Drugs during the 80s. It would also depend if the judge would want to make an example of them, or would go easy on them because of their age. Garth stabbing the officer made things much worse; he could be sentenced for assaulting an officer with a weapon, and his friends would be booked for being accessories to that crime. As Garth says, the punishment would depend on the rank of the officer and whether or not he hit an artery. Chelsea would be in particular trouble for stealing the officer’s gun and pointing it at him. With all this in mind, the city police would still proceed by the book in their pursuit of justice, and would still not shoot any of the main characters, unless Garth were to run at the cops with a knife again.
Given the choice, would you rather serve several years in prison with the possibility of parole, or risk almost certain death in a remote area at the hands of a highly-trained maniac? Adding to the fact that the forest is filled with wolves and hidden traps, and that The Ranger knows his way around the mountain like the back of his hand, can quickly travel from one place to another using his patrol vehicle, and can shoot from a distant unseen location using his sniper rifle. Personally, I would rather keep my head down in jail and hope to be let out early on good behavior, than cross paths with The Ranger.
The Ranger is obsessive in many ways. First of all, he has memorized the entire park rulebook line-for-line, though he has interpreted the vague legalese as grounds for capital punishment. To him, “violators will be punished” roughly translates to a bullet through the head. He must keep the forest clean at all costs.
The Ranger seems to have a deep connection to nature, whereas Chelsea’s friends, who have spent their entire lives in the city, don’t have much respect for nature, and see no issue in spray-painting trees or starting fires wherever they please. While frolicking in the forest, the punks come across a pile of rocks, formed into an upside-down triangle with a line crossed through it. Later, we see the same symbol tattooed on the Ranger’s chest. The significance is never discussed, but in Wicca, the symbol represents the earth element, which has two sides: one being the fertile and prosperous side of nature, the other being the destructive side of nature, manifested in earthquakes. The Ranger has a connection to the wildlife of the forest, particularly the wolves. He leaves out the corpses of his victims for wolves to feed on, though he also likes to keep a body part as a souvenir. In a bizarre ritual, he wears wolf skin, crawls on all fours and howls. And he repeatedly refers to Chelsea as “little wolf.”
“Mercifully, there’s enough gut-punching punk rock on the soundtrack to balance out the sappy country songs.”
The Ranger is drawn to Chelsea, but not in a sexual way. Ever since meeting her as a child when her uncle died, he believes she is the same as him, and that they carry the same darkness. He holds back on slaughtering Chelsea like the rest, giving her a final girl edge. Finally, and least of all, he is obsessed with the song The Most Beautiful Girl by Charlie Rich, which might go hand-in-hand with his obsession of Chelsea.
Mercifully, there’s enough gut-punching punk rock on the soundtrack to balance out the sappy country songs. Deathrockers Rotten UK perform in the dingy club at the beginning of the film, giving them four tracks on the soundtrack. The punks bring a boom box along on their trip, blasting tunes from resurrected old schoolers The Avengers, Canadian legends Dayglo Abortions, yakety-sax garage punkers the Atom Age, and lesser known band The Lobstrocities. The movie’s diverse score was composed by Wade McNeil, of such bands like Alexisonfire and Black Lungs, who have two songs on the soundtrack. I’m tempted to throw them all onto the Gut the Punks Spotify playlist, along with the anti-police songs mentioned above.
One subplot of the film I thoroughly enjoyed was Abe’s quest to come up with a cool band name. It’s customary to think of a name first before figuring out who will play which instrument or what style to play—though Abe feels inspired to write a song based on the sign in front of the forest: “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” The rest of the crew seems settled on “The Devioids,” but Abe is convinced he can come up with something better. The name comes to him after he suffers a traumatic experience and loses his foot in a bear trap. Half-crying, half-laughing, he cries out: “The Severed!” (I still think the Devioids was a better name).
Revisiting the Ranger was very fun—it was originally the only reason I subscribed to Shudder. It has humor sprinkled throughout the carnage and has a great cast. It looks great, due to the punks’ colorful hair and their wild fashion sense, more than the traditional black leather jackets. It’s got a lot spunk in its script and in its design. For a debut feature, it’s phenomenal, and I’m impatiently waiting to see what Jenn Wexler will come up with next.
What did you think of Jenn Wexler’s punk-injected slasher The Ranger? Who are your favourite punks in Horror? Got any good music recommendations? Let us know over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!