Though we tend to associate anything scary with hiding under the blankets until the fear goes away, horror storytelling is, at its best, an act of expansion, a swelling of reality as we know it. Yes, horror can make us recoil, but good horror storytellers know that after the initial scare comes a realization that our world is a little stranger, a little more challenging, than we previously knew it to be. That’s part of the thrill, after the lights come up and your heart rate returns to normal. That helps explain why horror, with its tales of outsiders and weirdos persisting in a world that demands they conform, returns time and time again to tales of metamorphosis, growth and radical acceptance of the monstrous. It’s fertile thematic ground that, in good hands, carries with it visceral terrors and profound chills. It’s here that Jennifer Reeder’s Perpetrator finds purchase, and grows into something dark, beautiful and compelling.
The character of the film’s title is a mask-wearing psycho who, in opening beats that will be familiar to any student of horror cinema, abducts teenage girls and takes them back to his own personal chamber of horrors. He’s already responsible for a number of disappearances and deaths in an upscale part of town when Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) shows up to live with her Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone, relishing every second of her performance) after years of living with a father who has no idea how to handle her. After spending her days breaking into cars and burglarizing houses, Jonny feels the immediate culture shock of Hildie’s elegant, restrained life, complete with attendance at a fancy private school lorded over by a demanding principal (Christopher Lowell) who forces his students into brutal drills to ward off everything from school shooters to would-be kidnappers.
But the changes in Jonny’s life are more than external. On her 18th birthday, she experiences a profound and violent change that Hildie refers to as “Forevering,” a shift in her biological makeup that grants her the gift of radical, unflinching empathy as well shapeshifting. Before her own eyes, Jonny is becoming a new kind of creature, and her shifting existence is about to put her face-to-face with the killer taking young girls.
Though the horror elements are present, and quite chilling, from the very beginning, Reeder (V/H/S/94) also launches her tale with elements of dark fantasy and primal mystery, expanding Jonny’s world as she comes to grips with her new abilities and the consequences of her gifts. Visual metaphors are laced through this process, from a toilet soaked in blood to an 18th birthday cake with powerful digestive aftereffects, giving the whole affair an added flavor of body horror— even folk horror—as the weight of Jonny’s strange lineage begins to set in. It’s a wonderful blending of subgenres, but what makes Perpetrator work is how committed Reeder remains to evolving the story with each new act.
As Jonny acclimates to her new life, Perpetrator takes on elements of dark comedy as we meet the plastic surgery and beauty-obsessed rich people surrounding the protagonist. Reeder delights in showing us the often gruesome shallowness of their worldviews, the ways in which local police are complicit in their callousness, and the hilariously deranged ways we’ve come to expect teenagers to deal with mortal danger. An active shooter drill becomes a Lynchian comic nightmare; the school nurse seems to be living her own private Cronenberg film. Through it all, Jonny and her new classmates are expected to just continue existing like this is a reasonable life, like all the expectations weighing them down are a mold rather than a torture device. Reeder’s script, and her knack for visually blending the mundane and the grotesque, captures all of this with gut-wrenching skill.
At the heart of it all, of course, is McKirnan, who rises to meet the strange metamorphosis of her character with stirring, impressive emotional power. It’s a great performance because she’s able to seamlessly work within the horrific broadness of certain elements of the film while never losing the emotional subtlety in her gaze—the sense of awe in her character’s discoveries as each new day brings another wave of changes. On either side of her are Silverstone and Lowell, who are both tasked with different angles of melodrama, painting in primary colors while McKirnan shades in the details. Like everything else in this film, it’s a delicate balance, but Perpetrator pulls it off.
And it continues to pull that balance off right up until the end, when the horror crescendos in unforgettable oceans of blood. By the time the credits roll, all the ingredients Reeder’s been carefully marshaling come together in surprising, satisfying ways, delivering a horror film that leaves the world a little bigger, a little stranger and a little scarier.
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Writer: Jennifer Reeder
Starring: Kiah McKirnan, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Lowell, Melanie Liburd, Casimere Jollette, Ireon Roach, Sasha Kuznetsov, Greta Stolte
Release Date: September 1, 2023 (Shudder)
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.