This piece was re-posted during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, PERPETRATOR being covered here wouldn’t exist.
PERPETRATOR, director Jennifer Reeder’s latest foray into darkly comedic horror, is a gory, bloody, coming-of-age tale. The star of this movie is Kiah McKirnan (“Mare of Easttown,” “Night Sky”), who plays an independent teen named Jonny. When we first meet Jonny, she spends much of her time alone or stealing cash and shiny objects, but she’s pulled out of her element when her father suddenly suggests she stay with her aunt. Just like that, she finds herself moving in with her Aunt Hildie, played by an icy and extra stylish Alicia Silverstone, just days before Jonny’s 18th birthday.
The teen struggles to fit in at first, with typical teenage problems, until she meets her new crush, the calm and cool Elektra (Ireon Roach). Once Jonny opens up to other girls at her high school, she learns that teen girls have been going missing a lot in the town. Covered in bright flyers advertising four young girls who went missing, Jonny’s new high school cannot forget the tragedy of their disappearance. More young women are going missing, and Jonny’s new friends are frightened they’ll become the next unsolved missing-persons case. Kiah McKirnan is good in this lead role, though her impact sometimes feels spread too thin between these numerous story beats.
The theme of trauma’s lasting effects runs through the film, though sometimes the teens make light of things. There are some streaks of dark humor throughout that add levity. One moment that feels very of our time is when one of Jonny’s classmates quips that if she fails an active shooter drill, her parents will kill her. Chris Lowell, who plays the school principal who’s trying to guide the students to safety with numerous drills, provides some hilariously deranged comedic relief.
When she’s alone while suffering from frequent nosebleeds, Jonny looks in the mirror and sees her face morphing into someone she doesn’t know. She’s starting a horrifying gore-filled transformation of her own. In this way, PERPETRATOR seems to take inspiration from Croenenberg’s specific type of surgical body horror, not to mention lots of nosebleeds and copious puddles of blood. PERPETRATOR refuses to explain all of the changes Jonny’s going through, though Aunt Hildie gives a few hints as to what will happen when the “forevering,” a type of mimicry, begins. As for the purpose behind Jonny’s inherited transformation, we’re left to wonder if it’s either for the witchy aesthetics or some underdeveloped symbolism.
Jennifer Reeder has been directing teen-noir-style films for a few years now, such as in her 2019 film Knives and Skin and more recently in the 2022 film Night’s End. Though Reeder loves to bend genres, in this case, it makes the movie feel uneven at times. During the 100-minute run time, it incorporates aspects of trauma, family drama, and queer romance, but these themes aren’t fully realized. PERPETRATOR could have dug deeper into some interesting facets of the film as well, especially the “forevering” transformation that the plot hinges on. But then again, maybe the transformation of growing up is supposed to elude us, just as it does for Jonny.
PERPETRATOR made its North American debut at Tribeca Film Festival on June 11, 2023. The film opens in select theaters and streams on Shudder on September 1, 2023.