High school is but a scream. Veteran Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Reeder’s fourth feature, fearless pop-art freakout “Perpetrator,” is a seriously bloody and bloody serious coming-of-age dream-drama-comedy that sets its broodiness in motion from the opening montage of history and portent in only a few seconds, then follows a figure with fluttery handheld motions and flickery jumpcuts. Cuts in erratic succession: Time is accelerated, anxiety ever-present. Reeder’s prismatic style shows that she’s been absorbing all the real giallos, while she’s also making an auteur picture through-and-through, a well of body horror with an immediately recognizable Reeder vocabulary, starting with bold, hued colors in the layered light of night, as much bruise as mood.
Just before her eighteenth birthday, turbulent teen Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan), sent to live with a great-aunt (Alicia Silverstone), is also struck by a family spell called The Forevering; soon, girls go missing and Jonny strikes out. The teens are played by older actors, another definition of a “forever” curse, but the key curse is a key weakness turned feral gift: empathy. (The politics of the film is never subtle and ready for discussion.)
Horror situations are familiar but energized—name your influences; I see several searing the subconscious and subtext—the genre conventions lacquered with feminist rectitude; goth poses are struck in bold costumes; the camera drifts amiably but these nights bleed fear, viscous as menses, and bodies give up vital fluids, from drips to splatter to a parade of human victuals past dusk. “Clueless”? Seen. Squish? Much. Ick? You bet. Answers? Few. Hope? Plenty. Hearts? Beating.
Modern horror needs more signatures that succeed through willful, even wanton excess. The mood is sustained by a simple yet layered score by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, pop and twang and even a pulse of dear hope. The sonic sensation is bloodstream level. Other key players: production designer Adri Siriwatt; costume designer Kate Grube and seemingly fearless and certainly shameless cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati.
“Perpetrator” opens Thursday, August 24 at the Music Box for a week before streaming on Shudder, beginning Friday, September 1.