Perpetrator (2023) Movie Review – A blood-soaked coming-of-age journey

For most people, an 18th birthday means the opportunity to have a wild night of fun with friends or a celebratory dinner party with family members.

But for Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), the main protagonist in Jennifer Reeder’s feminist horror movie, the birthday is the catalyst for a transformative experience, literally speaking, when, on the day of her 18th, her body begins to change and she starts to develop a set of unusual new powers. 

These powers include the ability to morph her face into that of another and an unnerving talent to mimic the actions of the people around her. There’s little time for gifts and party balloons, although she does get to take a bite of a birthday cake made by her mysterious Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) which, once ingested, brings about her ‘change.’

This isn’t just a film about Jonny’s transition into somebody (or something else), however. While the change she goes through is a big part of the story, with copious amounts of blood to symbolize the physical extremes of her bodily transformation, the film is also about the abduction of local teenage girls who have been taken by the perpetrator of the title. 

After moving out of her father’s home to live with her aunt, Jonny attends a new school and learns about these disappearances. She already has a lot to deal with, including the constant nose bleeds and unnerving bodily anomalies that upend her life considerably.

But despite these issues in her personal life, she still decides to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the missing girls. With new powers comes great responsibility, after all, and she resolves to use her special set of skills to bring an end to the masked maniac who is responsible for the school’s dwindling population. 

Who is the perpetrator? We aren’t going to reveal that here but you won’t be surprised when you learn of their identity. The list of possible suspects, which includes Kirk (Sasha Kuznetsov), the slightly seedy son of a local police officer, and the creepy Principal Burke, who forces his students to play a sinister game that replicates a school shooting, isn’t a large one. The reason for the abductions isn’t overly surprising either, as the clues to the kidnapper’s intentions are rather obvious.

But director Jennifer Reeder doesn’t seem that interested in the film’s plotting and central mystery. Instead, her main focus seems to be on creeping out her audience with scenes of body horror that would make David Cronenberg proud and moments of small-town weirdness that will be familiar to any fan of David Lynch.

As such, you shouldn’t expect a well-constructed narrative with easy explanations about what is going on with Jonny or the girls in her town. The film is more of a gory and hallucinatory experience that is abstract and unsettling in nature.

You might be frustrated by the film as a consequence. But then again, you might gain a lot of enjoyment from what you see on screen, especially if you’re a fan of the aforementioned directors who seem to be the inspiration for Reeder’s latest movie. 

So, while this is about a young woman with strange new powers, with a kidnapping story thrown in, this is also a film that defies logical explanation. It’s not that it’s weird for weirdness sake. There is meaning behind the film’s unusual happenings, with subtexts about puberty, feminine power, and victim blaming, but they are buried beneath scenes that are bizarrely funny one moment and gross-out unpleasant the next. 

The film isn’t always an easy watch due to the plentiful scenes of bloodletting and body horror but it’s never less than interesting. This is partly due to the unusual characters that dip in and out of the film’s story, and partly due to the fun performances, most notably from Alicia Silverstone in a scene-stealing role as the peculiar Aunt Hildie, who may or may not be a witch who is centuries-old.

Silverstone needs more roles like this to get her teeth into, as she has been stuck for far too long in tepid rom-coms and low-budget misfires that have under-utilized her considerable talents. She is terrific in the role of Hildie, showcasing a darker side than we are used to, though she doesn’t get a great deal of screen time due to the focus on Jonny and her blood-soaked coming-of-age journey. 

Perpetrator is one of the better releases on the Shudder streaming platform, thanks to the inventive direction by Reeder, the jet-black humour of her script, and the eye-catching cinematography from Sevdije Kastrati. But as it’s decidedly not for all tastes, this can’t be considered must-see viewing for everybody.

Teenage girls will get a kick out of Jonny standing up against ‘the man’ and fans of weird cinema will be delighted by the sometimes campy tone and gory imagery. But those looking for a traditional horror movie may be left wanting when the end credits start to roll due to the film’s lack of scares and abstruse plotting. 

Still, if you are part of the audience that this film is aimed at, we can recommend this to you. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the generic horror fare that is currently out there and it’s a further testament to the talents of director Jennifer Reeder, who continues to impress with her trademark black humour and ability to provoke thought (as well as disgust) in her fanbase. 


Read More: Perpetrator Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 6.5/10

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