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.
If you were hoping for a double feature of films this year that showcased teenage lesbians, high school self-defense lessons, and plenty of blood, you’re out of luck. The highly anticipated film Bottoms by Emma Seligman is already making waves, but there’s another film that shares a similar theme: Perpetrator, a Shudder original directed by Jennifer Reeder. While Perpetrator teeters between absurdity and sanity, it manages to deliver with its standout performance by Alicia Silverstone and its gruesome and comedic moments, making it a valuable addition to the flourishing subgenre of horror films centered around unhinged teenage girls.
A Dark and Chaotic Beginning
The film begins with a chaotic montage, with flashes of surgical tools assaulting the screen. It’s reminiscent of movies like Hostel but with a more vibrant and colorful palette. A masked stalker approaches a girl and brings her to his lair, filled with the aforementioned tools, ultimately drugging her with gas. The stalker ominously warns her, “This is very bad, but it could always get worse.”
Jonny’s Troubled Life
Meet Jonquin “Jonny” Baptiste, the central character whose life seems to only get worse. At first, her biggest problem appears to be her father, engulfed in a haze of prescription pills and unable to cover the rent. To make ends meet, Jonny resorts to robbing houses and selling her loot, including her own body at times. Despite her chaotic life, her manicure remains oddly impeccable. However, Jonny’s life takes a turn when she is whisked away to live with her aunt Hildie in a lavish house and attend an elite school. Unfortunately, her troubles only escalate from there. Hildie, Jonny’s peculiar aunt, presents her with a supernatural family legend alongside her 18th birthday cake – and an abundance of blood.
A Scene-Stealing Performance by Alicia Silverstone
Alicia Silverstone shines in her role as Hildie, adding a dose of campiness to every scene she’s in. She effortlessly glides around the beautiful wood-paneled home, adorned in elaborate black costumes. Her delivery of lines like “I’ve been buried alive twice” is dripping with wry relish. Hildie serves as a delightful twist on the wicked aunts commonly found in theater, film, and literature. Unlike characters such as Spiker or Sponge, she genuinely wants to help Jonny, but her spooky presence remains undeniable.
Reeder’s Black Humor and Visual Appeal
The film’s visuals and audio are truly remarkable, thanks to Sevdije Kastrati’s stunning cinematography and a playful, Suspiria-esque score by Nick Zinner, the guitarist of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Reeder infuses Perpetrator with her signature black humor, which adds depth to the overall experience. From lipsticks named “Hatchet Wound” to “Pussy Galore,” reminiscent of the “Rotting Corpse” nail polish from Reeder’s previous film Knives and Skin, her wit shines through. Particularly memorable are the scenes featuring Jonny’s school administrators, including a plastic-surgery-obsessed nurse and the menacing Principal Burke, who prepares his female students for acts of violence, even going so far as to play the role of the shooter during school-shooting drills. It is through humor that Perpetrator addresses topics that might otherwise be too painful to confront, as one character suggests.
A Flawed Final Act
Unfortunately, Perpetrator stumbles in its final act as it attempts to rationalize its own mystical story. The film heavily relies on its atmospheric and bizarre elements, making Jonny’s family background and the motivations of the girl-killer mundane and unnecessary. Perpetrator rebels against conventional dialogue, storytelling, and even physics. For instance, Jonny is shown vomiting blood and then casually sticking her arm into the pool of blood up to her elbow. By grasping for logic in the closing moments, the film undermines its exceptional weirdness and the razor-sharp premise that initially captured viewers.
Reeder’s Unique Exploration of Female Adolescence
Regardless of its flaws, Perpetrator cements Reeder’s position as an artist in her own right. She has crafted a distinct cinematic language to delve into the realms of female adolescence and the violence it attracts. While the film incorporates classic horror visuals, it is an incredibly specific and unique piece of art, with scenes filled with oozing orifices, excessive menstrual blood, and spontaneous acts of lesbianism.