Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Shudder Secrets: Perpetrator: A Chilling Genre Mash-up about Bodily Autonomy

When we think of Alicia Silverstone, what comes to mind? Likely, we think of Cher, the bubble gum-chewing star of the 1995 classic Clueless. If we go back further, we may remember her from those early 90s Aerosmith videos, or more recently, her work for animal rights. The Alicia Silverstone presented to us in Jennifer Reeder’s genre mash-up Perpetrator is much different than the other roles we’ve seen her in.

Silverstone stars as Hildie, a mysterious and stern woman who adorns herself with furs and black outfits. But she also helps her niece, Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), understand an awesome power called The Forevering, passed down from one woman to the next.

Reeder not only gives us a mesmerizing and somewhat chilling version of Silverstone we’re not used to seeing, but she also thwarts expectations at almost every turn. Her latest feature combines body horror with elements of film noir and a mother/daughter drama. She even associates blood with female power and agency instead of fear and pain. She toys with several conventions, all while crafting a film about bodily autonomy in a post-Roe world.

Perpetrator’s Jonny as a Wild Child

In her director’s statement, Reeder explains why the concept of a wild child is so important to her and a thread through most of her work. She says, “It is often the case that young women with any kind of agency in their life are referred to as ‘wild’ or ‘out of control.’ These terms are meant to disparage or at least dismiss that young woman’s path. I wanted to make a proper genre film about a teen girl who actually becomes wild and out of control.” She adds that we’re a culture obsessed with youth and body but too often thwart a young woman’s path, destroying and consuming her.

Jonny is indeed a wild child, to use Reeder’s own term. She thieves to help her dad pay the bills, while her mom is totally MIA. She’s eventually sent to live with her estranged aunt, and at school, she mocks the teachers and Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell). We’ll get to him more in a bit.

Meanwhile, her power makes her hyper-aware and sensitive of others’ feelings. Aunt Hilde calls it The Forevering, a gift that women in their family possess. In a rather gripping monologue just as Jonny turns 18, her aunt calls The Forevering a possession in reverse. She goes on, “We turn, shift, shape, and tune in.” This power does make Jonny more feral, to the point she develops ragged sharp teeth. It also gives her a heck of a lot of agency. The monster, if you will, uses that power for justice.

Perpetrator, Missing Girls, and Bodily Autonomy

While Perpetrator focuses plenty on Jonny’s strange new power, there’s also a killer on the loose. In the opening, a masked assailant kidnaps a young woman named Evelyn. Cut to his grimy lair, where he says, “Girls like you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Then the camera pans in on his bloody surgical tools. This is all horrifying because we don’t know what the killer will do to the young women, to their bodies. For the most part, his identity remains a mystery, but one by one, missing girls posters pop up around town.

This concept of missing girls and how society treats them comes up and up again. In fact, the women at Jonny’s new school have to take self-defense classes under Principal Burke’s strict rule. Yet, the first time we see him on screen, he also calls them vulnerable and even labels them pets. Right after that, he starts victim-blaming and says if something happens to them, it’s basically their fault. He even shames them about crying.

Yet, Jonny and her group of friends, especially fellow social outcast Elektra (Ireon Roach), refuse to become missing girls. They plan to fight back. Good thing Jonny has that special power. It should also be noted that Elektra and Jonny meet in the girls bathroom, with Elektra retching and puking. Jonny makes a crude joke about a coat hanger. This again underscores the bodily autonomy theme, even more relevant ever since the SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

In another twist on expectations, Reeder turns blood into a symbol of empowerment. Initially, the masked assailant’s gory tools invoke torture porn vibes. However, for whatever reason, blood empowers Jonny and Hildie. The blood in this movie creeps on the ground and seeps through bandages. Jonny also has frequent nosebleeds. Further, while blood is typically associated with victims in a horror movie, here, it strengthens the protagonist, as well as Hildie. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say there’s a scene with a cake full of blood unlike anything I’ve ever seen set to film.

Perpetrator’s Big Swings

It’s clear that Reeder had a concept regarding female monstrosity. The execution sometimes falters, but Perpetrator takes huge swings that deserve accolades. She even toys with a viewer’s expectations regarding Silverstone. She’s not a sex symbol here. Rather than the object of the male gaze, her character is a fierce warrior who assists her niece. Not only does Reeder blend several genres, but she gives her wild child protagonist fierce agency. Perpetrator is a bloody good time that plays with some huge concepts.

The film arrives on Shudder September 1. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest releases by following my Shudder Secrets column.