By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Jennifer Reeder’s films are not for everyone, and she embraces that. Rather than catering to the faceless masses, she makes the kind of movies she wants and has faith that they will find the right audience. Her previous feature films, Knives and Skin and Night’s End, in addition to countless short films, show her affection for horror and her strong advocacy of cinema as an art form. Her latest feature, PERPETRATOR, is no different.
PERPETRATOR follows a young girl as she dodges the cruelty of existence. Her mother is gone, her town in the grip of a murderer and her body changing in ways that the flimsy sex education classes in the U.S. never warned her about. To cope, she is sent to live with a reclusive relative who knows far more about what is going on than she initially lets on.
On the cusp of PERPETRATOR’s release so Shudder this month, Reeder sat with RUE MORGUE to discuss everything from Cat People to Cronenberg to Natural Born Killers.
Where did the idea for PERPETRATOR start?
So even before making Knives and Skin, the prior shorts that I made have so much to do with the experiences of adolescent girls and women. I get asked a question about my experience working with so many girls in front of the camera. It’s great. That’s why I keep doing it. But it occurred to me at some point that some of the assumption in that question was that it wasn’t awesome – that it was like someone’s nightmare was like walking onto a film set, with like 22, 14-year-old girls. And it just made me really think about the way that our culture is obsessed with youth and beauty among young women.
And we also like to just trash them. We sort of hate young women and adult women. Right around that time, I had this [idea] in the spring of 2019, so I had already launched Knives and Skin out into the world and was already kind of thinking about the next thing to do. And I knew that I wanted to kinda lean into genre more specifically, not just kind of lick it. I had rewatched the 1980s iteration of Cat People, which I love. So it was the combination of thinking about building a story around this idea of a “wild-and-out-of-control” girl who really becomes wild and out of control… thinking about the way that we call some young women who have kind of agency over their life “wild and out of control.”
And the phrase is not meant to celebrate their agency and their independence; It’s meant to diminish them. Thinking about that kind of “wild-and-out-of-control girl’ who becomes wild and out of control, and then thinking about the kind of provocative nuance of Cat People and the weirdness around virginity, I just thought, “Oh, God. I need to make a shapeshifter story.” Yet, I knew that I didn’t wanna make her a werewolf or [make] a vampire movie. I can bring her into the Jennifer Reader world, where things are a little lumpier or murkier or nuanced or way more allegorical than in those other more expected myths around shape-shifting. I started writing PERPETRATOR, which at that point was called A Girl and Other Small Stains.
I kinda like that title.
Oh, I love that title. I’ll recycle it at some point.
How did making Knives and Skin inform you to take this direction?
Knives and Skin premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in their Generation section, which is their youth section. I had started thinking about doing PERPETRATOR even before it went to Tribeca, but I knew at that point that it was going to have its North American premiere at Tribeca in the Midnight section, which is exactly what PERPETRATOR did also. I think leading up to Tribeca, I was honestly nervous about having it launch out of Midnight because Knives and Skin is really genre-adjacent. It was up against some very genre-committed films. And I was the only woman in that block. I was white-knuckling it to the press, thinking about RUE MORGUE, Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central.
All these genre super fans… What if they’re disappointed, and I get kicked out of the conversation? I was anticipating some of that, but of course, that’s not what happened. It was really embraced lovingly and enthusiastically, not just by the genre press but by genre fans. Such smart people, such super cinephiles, got it. I had already been thinking about doing something that was more embracing of genre and that was not simply using elements of horror or thriller or even musical to tell an allegorical story that hovered a little bit above reality.
And I think there are aspects of PERPETRATOR that still are genre-adjacent, which is totally fine with me. I lean more into the allegorical. Genre is a place for me to flex what I do best – what I think I do best – which is surreal and visual storytelling. That feels really productive to me.
It sounds like you made a decision to intentionally step into the genre. What made you want to do that?
Even the shorts that I had made leading up to Knives and Skin always had some dark element. There was often a missing girl – if not a dead girl. I know that I’ve used that over and over again, but it still is a fascination for me in real life – I mean, a heartbreaking fascination to me in real life. And I still think that the myth of the missing or dead girl is still a much-used trope in horror films, and yet, is still oftentimes problematic and triggering. Even back when I was doing these short films that were not considered genre, dark things were hiding in the background.
And people had secrets. I was, at that point, very committed to visual storytelling – fantastical, surreal elements. I could go back to even the very first short film that I made … which chronicled the misadventures of a girl superhero, which certainly is not genre in the sense of horror or thriller, but the girl superhero had toxic bodily fluids. I’ve been interested in being able to tell fantastical stories. And then, with Knives and Skin, I was ready to commit to something dealing with the visual image of this dead girl and the worry in town about who may be next. That creates these real psychological fissures.
I’m ready to take all of this stuff that has felt like I’ve just been riding casually alongside the dark corners and embrace that. I’ve always been a consumer of genre films. I always loved that. That’s my go-to. It felt totally organic; It didn’t feel like a leap. And then, when Knives and Skin was embraced by genre fans and the genre press, I thought, “Okay, I can do this.” It will not loved by everybody. Certainly. I understand that there’s very little middle ground that I allow for. There’s either people who like what I do, or at least are interested, and people who are always wondering how to get those two hours of their life back. Fandom is never a monolith. Some people just wanna see the weirdest thing that is possibly unclassifiable.
Are there any other genres you think that you’re possibly keeping an eye on, or are you enjoying where you’re heading now?
I love the potential for speculative fiction – sci-fi – especially around issues that are important to how to fit [the] women’s reproductive rights conversation into something that feels like dystopian speculative fiction – in the way the series iteration of Dead Ringers [does], you know? That made some really interesting moves. Or Under the Skin, which is not a perfect film, but visually pretty interesting with some larger issues to consider. When I was making PERPETRATOR, I don’t know how many times I re-watched Cronenberg’s Scanners, [which] leads you down to rewatching a lot of Cronenberg, including Videodrome, which is also about media consumption and the way that’s a slippery slope into body horror.
There’s something in there that feels more in the world of sci-fi or speculative fiction than horror or thriller. I’m interested in that as well. One of the things I did this past spring, because I just get antsy, was to write a really gnarly female-led action story. That is partially because I had been looking for something that felt really brutal, and I just wasn’t finding it. So I thought, “I can write scripts, I’m gonna try to write one myself.” It’s wholly grounded in reality, but it’s got some, righteous violence.
Somewhere in there is an idea of what would Mallory Knox (Natural Born Killers) in her mid-50s be doing these days. I love that the origin of that story, which was also inspired by Badlands. I was thinking about a woman who’s got a very traumatic and nefarious past who we meet decades later in her adulthood, but she’s still able to call up all of that violence. In a way, that’s also speaking of a more Cronenberg-esque female-led History of Violence. It doesn’t feel like a far reach simply because it’s more grounded in reality. It still has so much to do with inherited trauma, surviving trauma, dealing with violence against women, etc. I think that might be surprising to people, but it feels completely organic…
Regarding the visual construction of PERPETRATOR, you used a fascinating kaleidoscope lens. You mentioned Cronenberg, but I was thinking of Douglas Sirk. Of all the different visual experiences that you could have in this film, why did you go with that one?
I wanted there to be a very distinctive visual representation of a splintered self, especially as it’s related to Jonny’s [Kiah McKirnan] abilities, which when they are working optimally, she can become other people or look like other people – an empath. Maybe that’s not the right term. It’s not just an emotional empathy, but they absorb someone else’s feelings and energy, and they truly know what it is to walk in their shoes.
The kaleidoscope lens was really beautiful, but it also spoke to her fractured identity – not just as someone who has inherited this shapeshifting ability but also like a teenage girl living in this world. One’s identity shifts from moment to moment in real life as one code switches or reacts to something that’s happening in their environment, for better or for worse. In terms of a kind of Douglas Sirk reference, what has suited me so well oftentimes is leaning into melodrama. That is something that I do very purposefully, often combining melodrama, like a melodramatic moment, a melodramatic line of dialogue, but with a very deadpan performance.
People who cannot kind of sew themselves into the skin of my stories, I think that the combination of stuff just feels like an accident or it’s too messy or too lumpy. In PERPETRATOR, the performances feel melodramatic or stylized, which is totally purposeful. And then, other people think it’s bad acting. I cite not just the current melodramas but also the melodrama of classic noir films. I just love those kinds of clipped, stylized, back-and-forth beats of dialogue. I think of my films as art rather than a dramatic moment that needs to be directly translatable to one’s own experience in their own skin.
There is a quote that horror is just extreme empathy. It doesn’t work unless you have that gene in your body to care.
I agree with that. And it disturbs me that we also talk about women as being too sensitive or overly emotional, as though that is not an asset. I think it’s a way that women are kept away from positions of power. Right now, our administration is full of petulant, bratty men. I wouldn’t mind at all a woman who’s in charge, who’s in charge of her emotions and her emotionality. There’s a line that Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) says which I feel very proud of as the person who wrote it, where she says, “An emotional basket case can be a very powerful weapon.” I stand by that. I like being able to have characters embrace the thing that they’ve been told diminishes them, and then that becomes their superpower.
In PERPETRATOR, specifically, the curse and special abilities might still be the same thing. It’s messy, and that’s just how life is.
I think that we live in a world where it can be both and neither. And that feels also right.
Jennifer Reeder’s PERPETRATOR is now streaming on Shudder.