Jennifer Reeder’s new film Perpetrator has received some very strong reviews at Berlinale, and to be honest, it takes a while to figure out exactly why. Granted, this writer is not the world’s biggest horror aficionado, but Reeder’s film initially strikes as clumsy and scattershot, a collection of half-formed ideas held together with a low-budget, 1990s direct-to-video ambiance. Other than the presence of Alicia Silverstone liberally chewing scenery in a key supporting role, the appeal here isn’t immediately clear. But context is everything, and it seems that, for horror fans as well as movie lovers more generally, Perpetrator is being appreciated for delivering an unapologetic gorefest in a genre that’s become increasingly airless and antiseptic. In other words, Reeder and her badass mutant girl gang have arrived to liberate us from the tyranny of elevated horror.
In fact, the opening moments of Perpetrator almost play like a studiously downmarket remake of Bones and All, that lugubrious gewgaw from the perversely overrated Luca Guadagnino. We meet 17-year-old Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) just before her father sends her away to live with great-aunt Hildie (Silverstone), because the girl is undergoing “changes,” and papa doesn’t think he can handle her anymore. Jonny immediately clashes with Hildie, who comes off like an aging debutante holding court over a dank mansion whose glory days are behind it. But it’s Hildie, of course, who assists Jonny in accepting her post-human birthright. And while this alone would be plenty to have on Perpetrator‘s plate, Reeder is working within the field of serial killer tropes as well. The private school where Jonny has just enrolled has a problem with young girls going missing, and although it’s recognized as a problem — much of the girls’ curriculum centers on weird, ineffectual self-defense maneuvers — it’s not really regarded as a crisis. As Jonny remarks, “girls go missing every day.” And Perpetrator exists in a world ever so slightly more misogynist than our own, where the dismemberment of girls is little more than an inconvenience.
Perpetrator clearly has a lot on its mind, but it’s also a formally unspectacular specimen. The lighting is flat, the gore is cheap-looking (and plentiful), and the faux-John Carpenter soundtrack will conjure memories of other films that are both better and worse than this one. On top of that, some of Reeder’s key concepts seem to be lifted from recent films like The Fits or Lucile Hadžihalilović’s hermetic mood pieces Innocence and Evolution, while the puberty-as-monster-unleashed motif is a direct callback to Ginger Snaps. At one point, the masked killer even directly quotes Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. And then there’s the fact that virtually any slay-fest at a private girls’ academy will be compared with Dario Argento. Which begs the question: Is Perpetrator derivative or a postmodern text? It’s hard to say these days, but based on Reeder’s other films, it seems she’s playing textual games with her viewers, calling on a wide array of genre sources to remind art-damaged snobs of the g(l)ory of straight-ahead horror, all the various themes and stylistic approaches that have been assayed under that proud banner. From late-night Cinemax cheapies to neo-Surrealism, the scary movie contains multitudes. The only constant is thus: in all the good slasher films, women outwit the patriarchy and live to fight another day.
DIRECTOR: Jennifer Reeder; CAST: Josh Bywater, Avery Holliday, Casimere Jollette, Melanie Liburd; DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder; IN THEATERS/STREAMING: September 1; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.