An intriguing premise is almost spoiled by too many plot elements in Jennifer Reeder’s feminist horror movie.
PLOT: Jonny Baptiste is a reckless teen sent to live with her estranged Aunt Hildie. On her 18th birthday, she experiences a radical metamorphosis: a family spell that redefines her called Forevering. When several teen girls go missing at her new school, a mythically feral Jonny goes after the Perpetrator.
REVIEW: Female empowerment has never been as prevalent in horror as it has been over the last twenty years. With women shifting from victims and buxom eye candy to protagonists and heroic final girls, horror has experimented more and more with the ideas of gender, race, and sexuality than ever before. Jennifer Reeder’s new film, Perpetrator, takes on all these concepts along with a dash of pitch-black humor in a film almost beyond categorization. Drawing influences from Clueless and Heathers to Society and Suspiria, Reeder’s latest film is an interesting blend of ideas that do not come together in the end, even though it is still visually intriguing.
Perpetrator follows Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a seventeen-year-old who lives with her father (Tim Hopper) and scrounges money for rent and food by stealing from neighboring homes. When her father begins to suffer physically, he sends Jonny to stay with her aunt, Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), and attend a private school. As soon as she moves in with Hildie, Jonny notices strange things in herself and her new guardian. Couple that with a spate of disappearances involving her female classmates, Jonny has her hands full as she approaches her eighteenth birthday. Add to that the bizarre behavior of Principal Burke (Chris Lowell), who likes to roleplay school shootings, and the inappropriate questions of the school nurse, and you have an idea of how weird Perpetrator is.
Throughout the film, Perpetrator shifts tone and focus quite often. At the film’s beginning, there is a campiness to the dialogue and delivery, especially from Silverstone and Lowell, who chew the scenery with aplomb. By the halfway mark, Reeder shifts into a Giallo-style, with Jonny investigating the kidnapper who has taken her classmates using her newfound supernatural abilities. These abilities, called Forevering by Hildie, include fang-like teeth, a craving for blood, and a shape-shifting/empathy power that is hard to explain. Jonny tries to adapt to her new abilities, and the film takes on a Mean Girls/Clueless feel that is lighter than the subject matter. When the film moves into its second half, there are serial killer themes and production values that are reminiscent of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, the latter especially when a bizarre orifice that looks vaguely like genitalia comes into play.
With a score by Nick Zinner, drummer for the indie rock band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Perpetrator is bathed in stark colors reminiscent of peak Dario Argento, which plays perfectly against the synth-influenced music. Like many of Argento’s contemporaries, Perpetrator struggles to balance logic and coherence with the movie’s visual look. Sometimes, it feels like Jennifer Reeder wanted to put some shots in far more than she wanted it to fit into the movie’s narrative. This leaves a disjointed feeling permeating the dozen or so movies and filmmakers that clearly inspired this movie. The horror influences are apparent, which is a detriment to the finished product. It does not get going until the thirty-minute mark and barely fits in the requisite closure the story needs as it approaches the final ten minutes. Even when the credits rolled, I wondered if there was more to the story.
Jennifer Reeder’s film does carry a lot of meaningful themes. While the overall film is disjointed, there are a lot of messages that do work. As a body horror story, Perpetrator benefits from Kiah McKirnan’s (Mare of Easttown) lead role, which evokes elements of puberty, becoming a woman, becoming an adult, and facing your multi-ethnic heritage. The performance from Alicia Silverstone is also impressive as this film seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Clueless but gives a balance to her iconic role. Once the teenage daughter of a single parent, Silverstone is now the adult mentoring the teen. There are references to queer romance, reproductive rights, and more that do not ever feel out of place, but they also don’t seem to have a true place in this movie, instead having been shoved in to try and add one more element of relevance to the mix.
Perpetrator could have been really good but is instead merely serviceable. Had Jennifer Reeder elected to streamline the narrative and put in a more satisfying ending, this movie would have been a success. Reeder’s direction and visual eye are without fault, as she has proven herself in those capacities. As a screenwriter, Reeder needed to spend a little more time on the central focus of this story and build more from there. With plotlines involving awakening powers, a serial killer, a provocative teen mystery, an ancient lineage of eerie abilities, and more, Perpetrator feels like five or six movies crammed into half the running time needed to deliver a satisfying story. Some creative and gory moments in this movie make it worth checking out, but the film is underwhelming at best despite sparks of originality that prevent it from being a total loss.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/perpetrator-review/