Maybe the calendar says that fall is still a few weeks away. But there’s only 60 days until Halloween, so for horror fans, it’s pretty fall. After something of a quiet end to the summer movie season for horror with The Last Voyage of the Demeter sinking at the box office. As the days get just a bit shorter, however, we can expect more horror releases to pop up in theatres and VOD platforms. While Shudder has slowed down somewhat on their release schedule, they marked the first day of September with a new original movie, Perpetrator. From writer and director Jennifer Leeder, critics have been impressed with the indie horror’s results.
As her 18th birthday looms, the rebellious Jonny Baptiste lives on the periphery with her distant father. With each passing day, she senses something strange changing inside her – a change that creates more distance from her father. Eventually he sends Jonny to live with her Aunt Hildie, a strange woman who seems to know what’s happening to her niece. Meanwhile someone is stalking and abducting young women in the same town. When Jonny’s path inevitably crosses with this masked perpetrator, she will need to gain control of her new, strange powers to save herself.
Perpetrator Finds Visual Innovation from Its Subject Matter
Two distinct thoughts emerge while watching Perpetrator. Writer and director Jennifer Reeder (Night’s End, V/H/S/94) crafts a dreamy looking horror movie from what’s most likely a modest budget. Regardless of how Reeder accomplishes scenes where Jonny taps into her newfound and growing abilities, one immediately appreciates the creativity on display. Other scenes where Jonny’s abilities seemingly drag her into endless pools of blood capture the kind of surrealist horror that defined numerous 70s classics. While the scenes are intermittent, when the masked ‘perpetrator’ makes an appearance, particularly in the early going, Leeder knows how to add an air of menace.
Regardless of how Reeder accomplishes scenes where Jonny taps into her newfound and growing abilities, one immediately appreciates the creativity on display.
In addition to this abundance of visual style, star Kiah McKirnan, playing Johnny Baptiste, absolutely inhabits her character with confidence and charisma. Leeder’s screenplay ensures the character is layered, and McKirnan brings a raw energy to the role, never letting the visuals overtake her performance. None of the other supporting performances are bad. But there’s a tonally odd quality to some of the other roles that feels more fitting to a theatre production. While it’s always fun to see Alicia Silverstone (The Crush, The Requin), her performance just feels like it’s taking place in a very different movie.
Perpetrator is Visually Compelling, Narratively Incomprehensible
Despite the abundance of skill and talent on display, Perpetrator ultimately never really works as a complete horror-thriller. Amongst its major problems, Leeder presents a truly unique premise that never really comes together as a complete story. In fact, Perpetrator is kind of a mess in terms of its narrative. Oftentimes the thriller feels like a disjointed series of vignettes with little connection between one scene and the next. That is, Leeder introduces ideas – and some are quite idiosyncratic – but fails to tie those ideas into the larger narrative. What’s up with the school nurse or the school ‘massacre drills’? And how about local police officer? Or the motives of the masked ‘perpetrator’?
Oftentimes the thriller feels like a disjointed series of vignettes with little connection between one scene and the next.
In fact, Leeder struggles to really articulate much if any of what she want to put on the screen. There’s a fine line between lazy expository dialogue and clever ambiguity and just plain incomprehensible nonsense. Unfortunately, Perpetrator strays towards the incomprehensible. Leeder establishes a fluidity in what Jonny can do with her powers as compared to her Aunt Hildie, which has the effect of feeling like cheating. What the masked offender wants is never entirely clear. In fact, by the movie’s midpoint, some viewers may wholly abandon trying to understand what’s going on in the thriller. Odd pacing just exacerbates these problems leaving Perpetrator feeling like a collection of scenes – some of which are compelling – that never fully coalesces.
Interesting Ideas and Distinct Visuals Can’t Overcome Its Storytelling Flaws
There’s no doubt Perpetrator boasts talent behind and in front of the camera. Somewhere in this thriller is a wickedly unique idea alongside some dreamy horror visuals. But Perpetrator is often a narratively incoherent movie that never feels like it really comes together. While Kiah McKirnan sizzles in her role, some of the other performances feel like they’d be better-suited for the stage. Dangling ideas, awkward pacing, and a perfunctory finale don’t help much either.