PERPETRATOR (Berlinale2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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House-breaking kleptomaniac Jonquil Baptise (Kiah McKirnan) is known as Jonny to her friends – or, at least, she would be if she had any. With her relationship with her struggling, disconnected father in tatters, Jonny is sent to live with the long-estranged – and strange – Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverston), who seems to know much more about the teenage girl than the latter is wholly comfortable with. Sent to a strict private school, Jonny learns quickly about a spate of recent disappearances in the area of girls her age. When people she knows begin to go missing, the supernatural powers unleashed on her 18th birthday adds a dramatic added dimension to how she and the women around her deal with living in a world where such nightmarish things can happen.

On the back of the one-two punch of 2022’s Night’s End and her segment Holy Hell in the hugely successful V/H/S/94 horror anthology from 2021, Jennifer Reeder returns stronger than ever in a cinematic powerhouse up there with her breathtaking 2019 feature Knives and Skin. While solidly enough directed, that Reeder didn’t write Night’s End comes as little surprise and explains why it lacks the comparative oomph of the features that bookend it which she both wrote and directed. She is, unquestioningly, at her strongest when directing her own screenplays, her lush, at times even quirky signature dialogue style excelling when delivered by actors of such high caliber as Silverstone who, in Perpetrator, is surely as strong a performer as she’s ever been.

A delicate, intricate and enormously compassionate noir-tinged world-building project centered around the life of teenage girls, while it is not essential to have seen Knives and Skin previously, Perpetrator in many ways feels like if not an informal sequel, then certainly a movie set in the same narrative universe. Like that previous film, there is real humor here that lights up the darkness in much needed places, rendering the film as much a carefully rendered tone poem as it is a compelling reimagination of the teen-centered horror movie that focuses on seemingly out-of-control girls.

Horror streaming service Shudder quite wisely snapped Perpetrator up before its recent world premiere at the 2023 Berlinale, continuing their collaboration with Reeder after their previous support of both Night’s End and V/H/S/94. With Sevdije Kastrati’s beautiful, haunting cinematography, here’s hoping that the film will get a decent window for cinema exhibition before it hits the streaming service, but that Reeder’s work will be accessible to a wide, horror-appreciating audience comes as a relief – all too often films as unique as this fall off the radar after they have played the festival circuit, and Shudder once again has stepped up to give a deserving movie a welcoming home. But regardless of where it’s screening, Perpetrator is a very welcome return to form for one of the most original and fearless genre directors working today.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).