Masked serial killers, mean-girl cheerleaders and Alicia Silverstone as a spooky aunt with a penchant for blood-filled baked goods: Welcome to the world of Perpetratora new gory, kitschy horror thriller from transgressive artist-turned-genre filmmaker Jennifer Reeder.
For the follow-up to her 2019’s Knives and Skin, Reeder wanted to return to many of the tropes she explored in that well-received feature debut. Again we have a tale of the darkness that lurks beneath the clipped green lawns of American suburbia, a story of missing girls and murder packed with subtext about sexual identity and cultural conventions, and it is told in a visual mash-up of surrealist imagery and 1980s-style video gore.
But for Perpetrator Reeder decided to tell “a proper horror film.”
“I think Knives and Skin was more genre-adjacent,” says Reeder, speaking to The News84Media from her home in Chicago ahead of the Berlinale premiere. “For this one, I thought: I’m gonna really lean into the genre [because] if you do it right, horror can make room for both the super cinephiles, the film scholars and the activists to have a conversation, while the super genre fans can just dig the blood and gore.”
There’s plenty of both—schlocky shock and cinephile catnip—in Perpetratorwhich premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday (Feb. 17).
The plot of Perpetratorpartially inspired by Paul Schrader’s 1982 shapeshifting cult classic Cat People, follows Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a high-school senior on the cusp of her 18th birthday who has begun to suffer from powerful migraines and visions where she is shape-shifting into other people. Her single dad, who has a similar condition, sends her to live with her Aunt Hildie (Silverstone), who, we are mysteriously told, will help prepare Jonny for what comes next. For her sweet 18th birthday, Hildie bakes Jonny a very special cake with a magical, hemoglobin filling, a dish that triggers in Jonny a radical metamorphosis.
Meanwhile, in the neighborhood, someone is snatching up young girls Jonny’s age and doing unspeakable things to them. At school, Jonny’s principal (Christopher Lowell) is obsessed with doing emergency mass-shooting drills, and there’s a creepy jock (Sasha Kuznetsov) who, it turns out, has had sex with each of the girls before they disappeared.
“I definitely have been accused of being a bad feminist for the stuff that I lean into,” says Reeder. “There are directors I know who won’t touch a story like this, who have rules: ‘no dead girls, no non-consensual sex,’ [but] I think using these horror film tropes gives me a sense of ownership. Women, both in real life and in horror movies, are the victims, they are the murdered, they are abducted, brutalized. So when a female writer and director can kind of claim that territory and reinvent it, it can become a story of female empowerment, about women’s surviving and bonding with each other.”
On the schlock side, Reeder dunks her feminist message, and her characters, literally in buckets of blood. At one point Jonny swims through a lake of gooey, gloppy gore.
“I wanted it to look and feel like menstrual blood, more membrane-y, blobby, you know, not that kind of spurting stuff you usually see in movies,” says Reeder. “At one point, we had the entire art department mixing these gallons of homemade blood. It was our own patented Jonny blood recipe, because really good blood is pricey and we knew, with the amount we were going to need, it wouldn’t be economical to buy readymade.”
The visual extremes, and the deliberately camp acting style of its leads — Silverstone’s deep-throated delivery appears to be channeling Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott’s The Hungerby way of 1950s film noir — gives Perpetrator a satiric edge. The film’s several running gags — there’s a school nurse (Audrey Francis) with a botched nose job that gets worse and worse each time we see her, Jonny’s hairstyle becomes wilder and more expansive as she embraces the beast within her — pulls the movie closer to John Waters-style kitsch.
“When the costume designer would come to me with these photographs of the Nurse Marcy character and the progression, with more and more damage, more and more bandages, it looked kind of horrific and sad, but we’d just double over laughing at the excess of it all,” says Reeder. “We really wanted to lean into that kind of excess Perpetrator to get at that essence of camp where you have room to be not just funny, but also searing and smart.”
Perpetrator is likely to divide audiences, both in Berlin and later release — it goes out on Shudder in the US and is being sold worldwide by WTFilms — but Reeder stands by her bloody vision.
“We’re seeing now how horror films have become a really fruitful place to talk about hard issues, like issues related to social justice, sexism or racism, think of the popularity of Jordan Peele’s movies,” she notes. “But at the same time, I think as the world becomes a more difficult place to find kind of joy and peace, there’s a particular escape in horror films, even or especially if they are very dark and bloody, they give audiences a chance both to flex their intellect and enjoy the gore.”
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