Even in the golden age of highbrow auteur horror, truly cutting feminist horror is still waiting for its “Get Out” moment. That’s not for lack of trying: Rape revenge thrillers were trendy before the tepid pop feminism of “Promising Young Woman” made them a staple of the sub-genre.
While feminist horror provocateur Jennifer Reeder (“Knives and Skin”) has tastes far more sinister and far less mainstream, her latest zany invention is an ambitious but uneven jumble of ideas. One part surreal coming of age horror, one part to-catch-a-predator thriller, “Perpetrator” suffers from a novice lead performance and a script that tries to do too much. It’s an ambitious addition to the feminist horror genre with blood and guts to spare, but it’s no game-changer.
“Perpetrator” follows scrappy teenager Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a lone wolf who uses her burglary-earned money to help her distant single father pay the rent. Jonny’s dad is the first clue that something is amiss in this near dystopia: When he looks in the mirror, he sees his face morphing into other people. On a cryptic phone call to a trusted confidante, he begs for respite to “get himself together,” and soon Jonny is being shipped off to live with her stern Great Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone).
Looking more like an evil stepmother than a great aunt, Silverstone is a steely delight as the sharp-tongued and demanding mystery lady. Effortlessly chic in her sterile mansion, Hildie is the keeper of a family secret that might explain Jonny’s random nosebleeds and blurry mirror visions. Silverstone delivers her lines in a hyper-stylized staccato, the comical over-enunciation evoking a mix of either an otherworldly spirit or a WASP-y childless aunt. It’s exciting to see her return to acting in something beyond a “Clueless” throwback commercial, much less by taking a bold swing in an independent feminist horror film.
©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection
But there’s more than meets the eye in this timeless ghost town, which has been terrorized by a string of missing teenage girls. As the new kid to her tony school, Jonny is an outcast and a social curiosity, attracting the attention of both the popular girls and friendly loner Elektra (Ireon Roach). Obsessed with the danger lurking around every corner, an over zealous Principal Burke (Christopher Burke) runs terrifying active-shooter drills. Reeder makes amusing satire out of the pearl-clutching protection of young girls, threading the film with an absurdist sense of humor, like when the girls fret over the grounding they’ll receive for getting killed.
When Hildie feeds Jonny a blood-soaked cake for her 18th birthday, she begins to sense and feel experiences and emotions that cause her terrifying visions. Unperturbed by her nosebleeds, she’s less transfixed by blood than Hildie, who can’t help pushing a manicured finger deep into every red spurt she sees. Eventually Hildie reveals their hidden family power, a kind of hyper-empathy that causes deep pain but also bestows certain abilities. When Jonny realizing she’s been sensing the missing girls, which now include many of her popular classmates, she takes it upon herself to find the kidnapper and bring him to justice.
A detour into a tender romance with Elektra, while sweet, feels wildly out of place, especially given the lack of character development. The outlandish high school scenes are fertile ground for the kind of unsettling self-discovery Jonny is experiencing, but the measured austerity of Hildie’s house feels like an entirely different world. There’s also the mystery of Jonny’s mother to untangle, her absentee father, and the threat of the kidnapper. Though she’s plucky and easy to watch, McKirnan struggles to connect emotionally with the character, foregoing depth for a cool remove. Only Silverstone, conveying an ageless wisdom behind the eyes, is able to improve on and translate the lofty aims of Reeder’s script.
There are satisfying genre elements, to be sure, “Perpetrator” cannot be accused of playing it safe. Blood takes on a kind of mystical element in the film, rarely is there a scene without a splash of it. Though short on jump scares until its gory conclusion, the imagery in the final scene is inventive and creepy. Using light body horror elements to mirror a teenage girl’s changing body works as a metaphor in theory, but in practice it falls flat with the opaque character. Reeder’s ability to conjure sightly askew worlds that mirror and poke fun at contemporary fears is just as daring, but it needed a sharper focus.
“Perpetrator” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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