Superhero movies are usually associated with puberty because the whole process of gaining powers can be seen as an ugly (or beautiful) reflection of the physical transformation we undergo as soon as we enter our teenage years. But I think horror movies can do a better job of showcasing the same because of how unabashed and visceral they can be when it comes to depicting growing pains. Carrie is a film that immediately comes to mind, and the titular character is technically a superhero or a supervillain, depending on how you look at it. There’s The Lost Boys, which draws parallels between vampirism and growing up. Julia Ducournau’s Raw doesn’t have any supernatural elements, but it focuses on cannibalism and carnal cravings. The Witch associates witchcraft and “making a deal with the devil” with womanhood. Perpetrator falls into this coming-of-age subgenre of horror, and it’s a weird one, to be honest.
Jennifer Reeder’s Perpetrator follows Jonny Baptiste, a high schooler who steals from posh houses and sells them to her local dealer, Kit. She plans to make enough money so that she can leave the town, which is plagued with kidnappings of young girls. Jonny lives with her father, Gene, who seems to be suffering from an ailment where his face keeps morphing, which eventually leads to blackouts. So, he decides to send Jonny away to her aunt, Hildie, who will take care of her when or if she starts to exhibit similar issues. As soon as Jonny moves in with Hildie, she begins hallucinating and bleeding profusely very often. Hildie doesn’t make much of it because she considers it a part of her transformation. That said, she does take offense at Jonny’s habit of stealing, which leads to some loud confrontations. And although it looks like overcoming these personal and physiological hurdles will solve Jonny’s life, the existence of, what I am assuming is, the titular abductor exacerbates the preexisting issues.
Reeder’s writing is very direct in Perpetrator. There’s almost no room for interpretation. She talks about gun violence, misogyny, body image issues, periods, sexual orientation, sexual violence, and more in a pretty obtuse way. It’s actually the frequency at which she brings up these topics that makes the viewing experience really confusing. For example, one moment, you’ll see Jonny go through an epic meltdown due to everything that’s happening in her body and all the thoughts that are coursing through her mind because she’s living with a woman she doesn’t know. She has no clue how her father is doing, and she is suffering from severe mommy issues. The next moment, she’ll be going about her life like nothing has happened. I don’t know if this style of storytelling is intentional, and Reeder actually wants us to walk in the shoes of every teenage girl who has these jarring tonal shifts in their life and has no option but to roll with the punches. But there’s a good chance it can be interpreted as an issue with the script.
In addition to the aforementioned themes, Reeder takes two institutions to task: the police and schools. Again, without leaving any room for interpretation, Reeder explicitly says ACAB by portraying one of the only police officers in the town as a villain, which is fine and great. Law enforcement agencies have a long history of discrimination and partaking in extrajudicial punishments. So, it’s quite okay to make them look like the monsters they are. It’s what Reeder is saying about schools and teachers that veers into problematic territory. Without giving away too much, Reeder essentially says that schools may not be the temples of wisdom they are made out to be, and they can be hubs of nefarious activities. In a time and age when education is consistently downplayed, and influencers and YouTubers constantly talk about how young people can make money off of the internet instead of wasting money on a degree, this message feels a little irresponsible. I understand where Reeder is coming from with her commentary on shootings and assault, but she is probably pointing in the wrong direction.
The foundation of Perpetrator is shaky. There’s a kind of amateur approach to Reeder’s direction during the initial 20–30 minutes of the film, which leaves a bad taste in your mouth. As soon as some of the psychedelic imagery comes into play, Reeder gets confident as she allows the frames to be bathed in all kinds of colors and kaleidoscopic patterns. There’s a degree of body horror involved. I’m not sure if it’s limited by Reeder’s imagination or the budget of the film, but from what I can gather, she and her team do swing for the fences and come up with some puke-inducing moments. You can see shades of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. They just needed that extra push to be truly memorable. Sevdije Kastrati’s cinematography is decent. Justin Krohn’s editing is good. The physical altercations are over-edited, though. You can hardly see the blows landing. The makeup department does a great job of conveying the visceral nature of those fights, though. Nick Zinner’s music is unsure of itself. So, instead of adding to everything that’s happening visually, Zinner’s work ends up sounding a little too generic.
The cast of Perpetrator is competent. Kiah McKirnan has to do all the heavy lifting, and she does it pretty confidently. As mentioned earlier, the movie has these jarring shifts in tone, and it’s McKirnan’s conviction that allows you to stay in the moment and follow Jonny’s arc. She is great when she has to portray Jonny’s vulnerable side and that she’s a person who wants to get out of this mess instead of going deeper and deeper into it. She has the potential to be a great “Scream Queen” if she continues to star in more horror movies. Also, I think she can pull off difficult action sequences if she wants to. Alicia Silverstone is a welcome sight, and she is appropriately weird. Everything from her costume design to her pitch exudes goth vibes. It feels like she has arrived from the set of The Addams Family, and it works. Christopher Lowell and Audrey Francis’s performances are understandably eccentric and quite strange. Josh Bywater’s unhinged behavior as Officer Sterling is hilarious. The rest of the supporting cast, Ireon Roach, Casimere Jollette, Sasha Kuznetsov, and Avery Holliday, are all alright.
In conclusion, Perpetrator is an average horror film. Jennifer Reeder has a lot to say about puberty, education, how society sees women, how society treats women, and what it’s like to be a woman in this day and age, and that is undoubtedly commendable. But she struggles to say all that in a concise and comprehensive fashion while using the horror genre as a canvas to make an impact on the audience’s mind. I’m not sure how much of this movie you’ll be able to enjoy if you aren’t under the influence. You’ll need around 20 minutes to synchronize with the film’s ambiance if you are sober. If you are not sober, then you’ll be floating (metaphorically speaking) almost immediately and tripping over the visuals. Alicia Silverstone has been in quite a few horror films now, and I hope she continues to do so. So, yes, all in all, I didn’t hate this film, but I don’t think I’m going to have any fond memories of watching it. However, that’s just my opinion. Please watch it on Shudder, form your own opinion, and feel free to share it with us.