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‘Perpetrator’ Review: A Gory Horror Thriller With Cult Appeal



Somewhere between camp and Cronenberg (both father and son) lies Perpetratora freakish horror film from Jennifer Reeder that’s definitely an acquired taste — particularly if your taste includes sadistic masked murderers, plastic surgery victims, high-school cheerleaders turned robbers, and a birthday cake filled with cups of fresh hemoglobin.

This, plus lots more gore and insanity, can be found in writer-director Reeder’s fourth feature, which follows a teenage girl whose own grisly transformation happens as a killer stalks her fellow students at a quirky prep school straight out of Heathers. With a cameoing Alicia Silverstone playing a suburban auntie from hell, the Berlinale premiere should find a few cult followers at other festivals, as well as online via Shudder.


The Bottom Line

Transgressive and true to itself.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Cast: Kiah McKirnan, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Lowell, Melanie Liburd, Ireon Roach
Director, Screenwriter: Jennier Reeder

1 hour 40 minutes

Reeder built her reputation on the fest circuit with a slew of short films combining horror movie tropes with a form of transgressive surrealism reminiscent of both Cronenberg and David Lynch. Indeed, her latest movie feels equal parts Scanners and Blue Velvetwith bits of experimental formalism, including spooky kaleidoscope-like images, and moments of high kitsch.

The opening credits, reminiscent of Se7en and Saw, immediately put us into squeamish serial killer territory. After, we’re introduced to Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan), a high school senior whose father is having horrible migraines that stretch his face into odd forms, prompting him to send Jonny to live with her Aunt Hildie (Silverstone), who’s either a witch or sorceress or just a very strange fixture of an already strange American suburbia.

Like her dad, Jonny starts having bad headaches and shape-shifting visions that allow her to morph into other people. She also has buckets of blood flowing from various orifices, some of it related to menstruation and some of it inexplicable. She’s literally swimming in a lake of it at one point, and Reeder never loses a moment to douse her protagonist in lots of gunk.

At school, other girls her age have been mysteriously disappearing. Even weirder is a principal (Christopher Lowell) who acts like he should be committed, a guidance counselor with a severely botched nose job, and a jock (Sasha Kuznetsov) who looks as sinister as Euphoria‘s Nate. Any of these people could be suspects in the kidnappings, and while Perpetrator is not exactly a nail-biting thriller, it does keep us guessing for a time.

But the plot ultimately seems less essential to Reeder than moments of gross-out gore and plain old surrealness, which cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati captures in shades of blue and red that accentuate the bizarre and excessive side of what’s happening. Indeed, the film works best when it eschews story to produce some of these macabre visual epiphanies — or else when it doubles down on the crude comedy, especially in the prep school scenes, the way that John Waters would do.

Jonny’s gradual transformation into something abnormal feels like a clear metaphor for the growing pains she experiences as a young woman, and they accompany her romance with a friend, Elektra (Ireon Roach), and her quest to find the truth about her mother, who left the family long ago. Such plot points are far from subtle or original, but again Reeder is less interested in surprising us than indulging in horror clichés that make us both laugh and freak out.

Like the French filmmaker Yann Gonzalez (Knife + Heart), for whom slasher movies serve as inspiration for stories about queerness and transgression, Reeder is part of a new breed of directors who grew up with genre flicks in the 80s and uses their codes to say something personal about identity, doing it in ways that deliberately border on camp. Perpetrator may be silly and over-the-top, but inside of it lies a beating heart — quite literally, you will see — that yearns to express itself.

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