We can’t all be nice girls and, as Jennifer Reeder’s latest feminist-horror Perpetrator asserts, we may not want to be either. Over the years, Reeder has cultivated a reputation for crafting challenging, stylish, and unflinchingly female-focused stories that question women’s place in society and argue for less talk, more action. This idea is expressed in its fullest form in Perpetrator, which is ostensibly about a young woman coming of age in a horrifying way, Ginger Snaps style, but unlike that movie and most of its contemporaries, she decides to turn towards the darkness rather than shrinking away from it. As far as Reeder is concerned, the power is within us all; we just need to tap into it.
Our heroine who, in less sure (read: male) hands would be an antihero, is Jonny (an impressive Kiah McKirnan, making her feature debut) who’s scraping by trying to make ends meet by robbing those more fortunate than her. After Jonny’s struggling single father sends her off to live with her estranged aunt, Hildie (Alicia Silverstone, having an absolute ball), the burgeoning young adult discovers she’s going through some changes. Reeder doesn’t really specify but given the amount of gushing blood and oozing wounds, vampires are certainly a heavy influence. Jonny’s struggle could also be taken as a metaphor for periods, which are more horrific than any man could ever envision.
After moving to a new school, Jonny falls in with a group of outcasts who are understandably terrified that they’ll be next due to a spate of missing girls in the area that nobody, including the local police, seems to care about. The movie kicks off with the classic POV shot through the killer’s mask, with a young woman walking home alone at night left vulnerable to his whims. But Perpetrator is no slasher. Reeder isn’t content to leave her female characters simply waiting around to be picked off one by one and instead, through Jonny, she puts them in the driver’s seat. The problem is that, even despite her new abilities, Jonny may still be in way over her head here.
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Perpetrator is more accessible than Reeder’s breakout movie, Knives and Skin, but both still bear the hallmarks of her work including the recurring motif of clandestine chats in the ladies’ room and a strong, unapologetic queer romance taking centerstage. Moody visuals and a propulsive score elegantly complement the defiantly female energy on display throughout with very few male characters even gifted much screentime. The exception is Christopher Lowell, once most well-known for playing the dweeby college boyfriend in Veronica Mars but now building on his jaw-dropping heel turn in Promising Young Woman by going full-on evil as a principal who enjoys active shooter drills a bit too much (I never trusted him in Veronica Mars either, for the record).
Lowell’s turn is compellingly deranged, and he gives his all to every wild moment, whether he’s screaming at a woman on whom he’s performing (terrible) oral sex or delivering faux-feminist monologues during a school assembly. Silverstone, meanwhile, has been slowly but surely making her way over to the dark side too, especially following her role in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Hildie could almost be a relative of her character in that film, with her haughty attitude and perfectly coiffed hair. It’s clear she cares for Jonny even if she doesn’t fully understand her, with Reeder notably making a stronger case for an older white relative taking in a troubled family member of color than Paul Schrader’s recent, insufferably preachy, and woefully ill-advised Master Gardener, in which Sigourney Weaver portrayed a similar, albeit underwritten role.
Reeder, on the other hand, has complete command of her material. She knows exactly what she wants to say and how to communicate it effectively, with the right number of stylistic flourishes and eye-catching visual metaphors (the recurring dips in a literal bloodbath are particularly memorable). The writer-director even manages to sprinkle in some stomach-churning body horror towards the end, once again exemplifying the amount of care and attention that went into bringing this very personal project to life. That’s not to say Reeder is stubbornly serious, however, with moments of pitch-black humour puncturing the discussions of “profound, spectral empathy” that threaten to make Perpetrator feel more like a dissertation than a horror movie.
For instance, the image of Silverstone plunging her fingers into a bleeding cake before enthusiastically licking them is wonderfully camp as is one of the teens using a lipstick called “Hatchet Wound” (side note: market this now). Reeder has no interest in lecturing us, she wants to entertain and educate in equal measure and it’s to the filmmaker’s great credit, alongside her talented young cast, many of whom are newcomers, that Perpetrator works as well as it does, both as a horror movie and an indictment of the state of womanhood today. Jonny isn’t exactly an avenging angel, but she’s also not a victim. Like many frustrated young women, she wants to take control of the narrative rather than just accepting how bad things are. We might not all be lucky enough to wield literal supernatural powers, but we can certainly learn a few lessons from her take-no-prisoners approach.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Jennifer Reeder
Writer(s): Jennifer Reeder
Stars: Kiah McKirnan, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Lowell
Release date: September 1, 2023 (select theaters and on Shudder)
Run Time: 100 minutes