Perpetrator Review

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If you were expecting two films to come out at the same time this year featuring teenage lesbians, high school self-defense lessons, and blood splatter galore, well, scratch that one off your bingo card. One such film is, of course, Emma Seligman’s Bottoms. But you might not know that the fight club comedy has an evil, scrappier twin: Perpetrator, a Shudder original from writer-director Jennifer Reeder. Perpetrator drifts between absurdity and sanity when it should just pick a lane, but thanks to a scene-stealing performance from Alicia Silverstone and some good gory gags, it’s a worthy addition to the booming subgenre of unhinged-teen-girl horror.

It opens with a hectic montage: Flashes of surgical tools assault the screen. (Think Hostel, but with a more vibrant color palette.) A masked stalker approaches a girl, brings her back to his lair — where the aforementioned tools lie in wait — and drugs her with gas. “This is very bad,” the villain tells her, “but it could always get worse.”

That certainly seems to be the case for our lead, Jonquin “Jonny” Baptiste (Kiah McKirnin). At first it seems her biggest problem is her dad, who’s so gone on prescription pills he can’t make rent. Jonny robs houses and sells her finds – and, sometimes, her body – to make ends meet. (Her manicure, however, remains suspiciously on point.) After she’s whisked away to live with her aunt Hildie (Silverstone) in an opulent house and attend a fancy new school, things only get harder. Hildie is an odd duck, and she serves Jonny her 18th birthday cake with a side of supernatural family lore. Oh, and blood. Lots of blood.

As Hildie, Silverstone is the movie’s strongest asset, amping up the camp in each of her scenes. She glides around a beautiful, wood-paneled home in elaborate black costumes, delivering lines like “I’ve been buried alive twice” with wry relish. Hildie offers a great twist on the wicked aunts of stage, screen, and literature. She’s no Spiker or Sponge since she wants to help Jonny, but that doesn’t stop her from being spooky.

The film looks and sounds incredible, thanks to Sevdije Kastrati’s jaw-dropping cinematography and a playful, Suspiria-esque score by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. Reeder’s signature black humor further bolsters Perpetrator: Characters choose from lipsticks called “Hatchet Wound” and “Pussy Galore,” recalling the “Rotting Corpse” nail polish shown off in the director’s 2019 film, Knives and Skin. Her wit is particularly punchy in scenes with Jonny’s school administrators, a plastic-surgery-obsessed nurse (Audrey Francis), and the boyish, menacing Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell), who preps his female students for all manner of violence. In school shooting drills, he gleefully plays the shooter, and pupils are disciplined if they “die” at the end of his water gun. These are the kinds of things we have to laugh about, lest we, to paraphrase one character, cry and never stop crying.

Things go downhill in the final act, as Reeder tries to rationalize her own mystical story. Built almost entirely on vibes, Perpetrator is not suited to such mundane matters as Jonny’s family makeup or the girl-killer’s motivations. Perpetrator rejects conventional dialogue, storytelling, and physics: Jonny can puke up blood and then stick her arm into it up to the elbow. Scrambling for logic at the very end undermines the film’s wonderful weirdness and razor-sharp premise.

Still, Reeder exists in a class of her own, having crafted a unique – some may argue ridiculous – cinematic language to explore female adolescence and the brutality it attracts. The perpetrator may feature some classic horror visuals, but it is incredibly specific art, characterized by oozing orifices, excessive menstrual blood, and spontaneous acts of lesbianism.


Perpetrator’s script doesn’t show writer-director Jennifer Reeder at her sharpest, but it has enough black humor to keep you entertained as the mostly experimental plot unfolds. The visuals are great, the soundtrack is killer, and Alicia Silverstone is beyond the game to play the protagonist’s bizarre aunt. Unfortunately, Reeder excels at surreal storytelling, and she shies away from that in the final act. If you like unhinged-teen-girl horror, don’t miss this one – but maybe watch Reeder’s earlier film, Knives and Skin, first, to get a sense of her unique style.

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