An incomprehensible mess of a film, Perpetrator is a horror story, a treatise on the experiences of female adolescence and a commentary on womanhood in general, with a little supernatural kick for good measure. It’s just too bad it doesn’t really do any of those things particularly well.
Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) is a bit of a troubled young woman, stealing to help keep her and her father afloat. Her mother mysteriously vanished some time earlier, and though her father claims she’s still alive, she is not present.
On the eve of her 18th birthday, Jonny is sent to live with her great aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) and things start happening. Aunt Hildie tells her she’s “Forevering,” which she calls “profound spectral empathy.” In essence, “possession in reverse.” Basically, she has powers that include hearing the thoughts of others and sometimes experiencing the physical sensations they experience.
At the same time, several girls have disappeared from a private school run by Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell), which many people, Jonny included, shrug off since “girls go missing all the time.” However, Jonny’s latent powers are beginning to emerge, and she starts receiving clues that may lead to the missing girls.
But in the meantime, Jonny hangs out with peers, makes smarmy comments to adults and does things that move her toward the film’s climax but mostly have no particular consequence one way or another.
None of the characters are particularly interesting. McKirnan’s lead is flat and uninspired. Silverstone speaks in a droning lilt, and her role as explainer is as cursory as it is pointless. She brings little value to the film outside of her name.
In select theaters and streaming on Shudder beginning Friday, Perpetrator is one of those films where characters use unnecessarily big words for no particular reason. Full of scattershot dialogue, most adult characters say bizarre things like “Comfort is overrated.” Another time, a nurse says of a character’s heart murmur, “I’ve never seen one like yours. It’s like you have two hearts if not three.”
Of course, the story is a metaphor for emerging womanhood, and the repeated blood (read: menstrual) motif is obvious. With occasional forays into imagery where characters are penetrating other characters, there is also a lot of visual pointing toward the horrors of sexual conquest. One in particular involving a cake dies on the vine, and by the time it returns later in the film, we’ve already moved on, creating a punchless gag.
There is also a fair amount of gore, but the grossouts are showy and empty, lacking the meaning that would have otherwise punctuated them. They never really make a statement or go anywhere. There is a provocative statement to be made in this film, but the filmmakers never really get around to making it.
Horror has always been a genre that loves to use emergent feminine maturity as fodder for a horror film. Everything from Carrie to Teeth to Midsommar has mined the topic, showing how as hormones change, so do the body and the mind. But it feels like writer-director Jennifer Reeder has all the metaphor and not much of a film in which to put it. She creates abstract visuals that remain sloppy, clumsy attempts at what could have been a pointed, powerful movie about the female experience. Perpetrator tries to make a statement but doesn’t quite have the voice it needs.