‘Perpetrator’ Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Missing Girls Horror Is A Trip Dripping In Blood & Atmosphere [Berlin]

The films of Jennifer Reeder have an unmistakable vibe. Her acclaimed short films, including “All Small Bodies” and “Crystal Lake,” have been shown on The Criterion Channel, and her feature film “Knives and Skin” has been shown at Berlin and Tribeca. 

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Reeder’s films, which have been described as the meeting point between David Lynch and John Hughes, share little in terms of plot, but all bear an unmistakable eeriness, an otherworldliness that could only be Reeder. Jennifer Reeder has cemented her status as a horror doyenne with her fourth feature film, “Perpetrator,” premiering in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival

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Returning to her usual theme park of girlhood, teenagedom, and the weird ways in which their bodies can be weaponized, her protagonist is the quick-witted Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) who, like all teenagers are wont to do, thinks there’s something wrong with her—an abnormal heart murmur, like she has two hearts instead of one. Spontaneous nose bleeds—a strange shimmering on her face. When Jonny’s father, who’s struggling with some debilitating but undisclosed ailment, sends her off to a new high school and under the care of her aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), Jonny becomes reluctantly embroiled in the serial disappearances of local girls. 

Reeder and cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati (Vera Dreams of the Sea”) take influence from giallo films and teenage classics like “Heathers” to craft a world that blends the kitsch and the uncanny. Reeder’s films all have an unnatural stiffness, which either works for you or doesn’t. Much like “Knives + Skin,” “Perpetrator” looks at the horror underneath the everyday Americana, at a culture struggling to reconcile a white picket fence ideal with school shooter drills. A series of missing girls (“Girls go missing all the time, what’s the big deal,” says one of the characters) and a possible serial killer on the loose do not faze Johnny at all. When she discovers that all the missing girls hooked up with the same tall jock-boy Kirk (Sasha Kusnetsov), who also happens to be the hapless police officer’s son, Jonny hatches a plan to set herself up to be the killer’s next’s victim and solve the disappearances herself. 

While the teenagers that populate the world of “Perpetrator” are world-weary, the adults are downright goofy. A running joke is the school nurse’s increasingly bandaged face as she tries to halt the effects of aging. The school headmaster (Christopher Lowell) is a kooky and over-the-top disciplinarian who will run around his school screaming, “CODE MASSACRE! DOUBLE BLOOD BATH!” and punish the students if they get mock-killed during the drill. Silverstone, who has yet to have a big comeback moment in the way some of her beloved nineties contemporaries have recently enjoyed, doesn’t get that much to do, unfortunately. While she’s altogether game for the world that Reeder has built, delivering her lines with a campy gravitas usually reserved for the very episodes of “Dynasty,” her role lives in a no-man’s-land of an overhyped cameo. When she is onscreen, you wish for more of her. Either a witch, a vampire, or something entirely different, Aunt Hildie has been around for centuries (she’s been buried alive twice, she declared proudly) and is there to ease Jonny into a world of shape-shifting, transformations, and a power that’s been passed down through generations. Like a “possession in reverse,” this power is undefined and fluid. 

“Perpetrator” is much like that too. The plot is mostly irrelevant, aside from how it allows for Reeder’s ideas and imagery to flow. Oozing, gooey blood and messed-up school uniforms, secrets whispered in high school bathrooms, glitter dresses, and uncanny face masks all meld together to create a film rich in atmosphere and artifice. [B+]

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