‘Perpetrator’ spills blood and guts in a high school world

Here's a still of Jonny, the protagonist. Credit should go to Shudder. Jonny (Kiah McKernan) in "Perpetrator."
Here’s a still of Jonny, the protagonist. Credit should go to Shudder. Jonny (Kiah McKernan) in “Perpetrator.”

Queer director Jennifer Reeder makes horror movies about horror movies. Like David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” or the neo-gialli of Hélene Cattat and Bruno Forzani, their meaning stems from their references to the genre’s tropes. To a large measure, “Perpetrator” is a response to Stephen King and Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” It refers directly to De Palma’s film in a scene where Jonny (Kiah McKernan) suddenly starts bleeding while standing in the bathroom. But instead of using the camera to leer at her body or showing her humiliation at the hands of other girls, “Perpetrator” uses this scene for a moment of bonding between Jonny and her great-aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone). Rather than turning Jonny into the sole survivor of male violence, Reeder creates a community of girls and women across racial and generational boundaries. Their ability to make it to the film’s end depends on their connections with each other.

“Perpetrator” starts with a blonde teen stalked by a man who rides around a small town at night, looking for girls to kidnap and abduct. After he snatches her, the film moves on to Jonny. At 17 years old, she can’t wait to grow up and escape her repressive town, where she has to take care of her sickly father. He sends her away to live with Hildie as her 18th birthday, which promises major physical changes, awaits. (Her nosebleeds and face-shifting in the mirror suggest what they might be.)

A biracial girl, she never knew her Black mother and was raised by her white dad. At school, the principal lectures his students condescendingly about the danger that lurks around every corner and stages shooter drills, where he plays the killer with a little too much excitement. She’s attracted to Elektra (Ireon Roach), following around with her under bed covers, and the two team up to track down the kidnapper.

While “Perpetrator” is only Reeder’s fourth feature, she’s been working since the 1995 John Waters-cum-riot grrrl short “White Trash Girl.” Her interests in violence, bodily fluids, and teenage girls’ lives have remained constant, but Reeder fully found her voice with the series of shorts she directed in the 2010s. (10 are now streaming on the Criterion Channel.) Mixing horror with teen drama, they draw upon ‘80s and ‘90s culture affectionately yet critically. (As a small example, one uses a version of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” sung by a woman as a lullaby.) The casting of Silverstone, star of Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” calls back to one of the few popular teen comedies of that time directed by a woman. Reeder’s finally found a niche directing horror features under the auspices of Shudder. Indeed, her 2019 “Knives and Skin” recycles parts of several shorts.

Reeder creates a world that’s extremely seductive, yet highly dangerous. She turns high school into a mythic space, with girls as its heroes rather than victims or objects. Yet the transition to feature-length narratives has been extremely bumpy. She can come up with memorable, even haunting images, but she’s not primarily interested in storytelling. Her previous film, “Night’s End,” stretched out a thin premise for 80 minutes, repeating itself even at that brief length. When “Perpetrator” works well, it’s in the moments when it concentrates on images instead.

The film reclaims horror films’ gore as a specifically female vision. Jonny imagines diving into a pool of blood, and she develops supernatural powers that can make other people bleed. She finds power in that pool. “Perpetrator” finds ways to show blood throughout without simply killing off girls. It’s not used as a symbol of violence, but a marker of our physical nature. Reeder suggests that disgust with blood is a sexist response to menstruation. Instead of finding it icky, “Perpetrator” embraces it.

The film relies heavily on style, but compared to Reeder’s best work, it falters. Giallo-influenced lighting is a bit worn out by this point. The constant murk of other scenes is unflattering to the cast. The film strains to achieve memorable images more than it actually arrives at them. The performances are often broad and campy, with too many stilted readings delivered by actors who don’t seem right for this tone. Trapped in a world of other images and reference points, its commentary on them gets bogged down, while some of its inspirations, like Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” and Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution,” are actually more adventurous. Constant shifts of genre and mood do lead to a heartbreaking scene where Jonny finally meets her mother, but although full of ideas, “Perpetrator” has little sense of  how to make them cohere together.

“Perpetrator” | Directed by Jennifer Reeder | Shudder | Opens at the IFC Center and streams on Shudder Sept. 1st