What should horror movies be judged by? Airtight narrative logic, or imaginatively deranged imagery? Scores matter, scripts matter, but by the end of the movie what tends to matter most are the visuals, and Richard Shepard’s new movie, The Perfection, sears its visuals into the viewer’s mind like branding on livestock, right up to its final shot, one of the genre’s most indelible since horror became the taste of the day in the mid 2010s.
It’s a twisted kind of miracle that anyone who watches The Perfection will never be the same, and a testament to horror’s power to bend minds and spur nightmares with a single picture. But the movie also reminds us that as much as pictures often come first, plotting usually should come a very close second. The Perfection strains on the page. Shepard co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo; the trio’s combined efforts, for better and worse, have produced a script heavy with ghastly creativity but overworked by cleverness and conceit.
The film begins promisingly enough: After abandoning her career to care for her dying mother, cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) returns to the music world to reclaim her standing as the Bachoff Academy of Music’s star pupil, which means sabotaging the current title holder, Lizzie (Logan Browning). Charlotte reaches out to her old teachers, Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), travels to Shanghai as Bachoff selects its latest student, and cozies up to Lizzie. They flatter each other. They flirt. They drink, go partying, then make passionate love in a hotel, filmed with cinematographer Vanja Cernul’s lurid gaze. Maybe Charlotte bears Lizzie no grudge. Maybe they really do admire each other to romantic heights.
And then they travel to rural China, where Lizzie grows increasingly sick, starts puking up bugs, discovers yet more bugs dithering about under the skin on her arm, and, when offered a butcher’s cleaver by Charlotte, chops off her hand.
This is the climax to The Perfection’s first half hour, ruined by a single viewing of the trailer. It’s also where Shepard springs the first of several fakeouts, stealing a page from Michael Haneke’s playbook. Lizzie swings the cleaver, and the film rewinds. There were no bugs; they were hallucinations. Charlotte spiked Lizzie’s hangover cure with her dead mom’s medication, all part of an absurdly complex plan to get Lizzie out of the picture. Or is it? Shepard makes liberal use of that rewind button several times over. Each time, the plan expands. Charlotte, like Severus Snape, is revealed as the good guy, as Lizzie’s protector. But who does Lizzie need protection from?
Horror is a mirror that reflects cultural phobias of the day, and today, in addition to so many other things, people fear powerful men who use their power to indulge their own perverse delights. If 2019 still belongs to the #MeToo era, then so too does The Perfection, though #MeToo might quibble over whether it wants anything to do with Shepard’s work. This is a sordid, deliciously wicked film, stylized with split diopters that anchor viewers firmly to Charlotte’s perspective.
At its best, The Perfection is an homage to 1970s horror movies and 1980s thrillers, a glorious, multi-hewed mind screw. When Shepard sticks to this aesthetic, The Perfection soars on grotesque wings. When he commits the cardinal sin of demystifying the mysterious, it’s a major drag. A little ambiguity goes a long, long way in horror. The proof is in The Perfection’s first 30 minutes, an exceptional stretch of filmmaking screaming “originality” at the top of its lungs. For the astute moviegoer lucky enough to dodge trailers, questions arise at every turn and no answers ever come: Why does Charlotte have the same note as Lizzie tattooed on her back? How did Lizzie’s epidermis become a spider colony? What kind of movie even is this? But then the rewind hits, and with every subsequent rewind Shepard squeezes all the macabre joy out of his setup.
That said, Shepard’s eye for violence, at least, is impressive enough to hold the film aloft even after hand-holding his viewers one too many times. Eventually, he runs out of excuses to turn back time, and he plows ahead into bloody vengeance. The Perfection owes as much to Dario Argento and Brian De Palma as it does Tales From the Crypt, but the movie owes an apology to the audience, too, for its compulsive insistence on explaining itself ad nauseam until there’s nothing to think about and all that’s left is mayhem.
Director: Richard Shepard
Writer: Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder, Eric C. Charmelo
Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.