In ‘Perpetrator,’ the Horror Is Explicitly Feminist and All the Blood Looks Menstrual

Director Jennifer Reeder spoke to Jezebel about her "fixation" on the missing girl trope and female friendship as a survival strategy.

In ‘Perpetrator,’ the Horror Is Explicitly Feminist and All the Blood Looks Menstrual
Image:IFC Films

Director Jennifer Reeder has a multi-pronged theory for why there seem to be more women making horror movies than ever. For one thing, there’s a woman at the genre’s foundation (Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein). Then there’s the way people assigned female at birth are socialized to be afraid. And finally, “From a very young age, we have a really consistent and robust relationship with blood,” she explained to Jezebel via Zoom this week in a conversation about her new movie Perpetrator, which begins streaming Friday on Shudder. So robust is Reeder’s relationship with blood that it pours in what feels like every other scene of her movie—from noses, from Cronenbergian ports in bodies, and from uteruses. All of the movie’s blood, Reeder told Jezebel, was made to look like menstrual blood.

It’s just one of the ways Reeder has made the genre hers and explicitly feminist. Perpetrator tells the story of Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a kid on the cusp of her 18th birthday who steals to survive. She’s sent to live with her witchy aunt Hilde (a rather stylized Alicia Silverstone), who reveals a family inheritance of extreme, supernatural-tinged empathy she calls “forevering.” What eventually feels like a curse becomes a gift, or at least a power, that Jonny attempts to use to find a spate of girls from her new school who have gone missing.

Perpetrator hits on some of the beats in Reeder’s previous movie, 2019’s Knives and Skin, and in fact, Reeder says she considers Perpetrator to be her previous film’s “cousin.” There’s a Heathers-like sense of humor in its portrayal of teens’ socializing and the ridiculous adults around them (at school, they undergo active-shooter drills in which the principal shoots them with a water gun full of fake blood). The movie is flowing with ideas about the regard of teen girls and their past portrayals, and Reeder is devoted to not just her genre but infusing it with social consciousness. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: You’ve said that the germ of this story came out of your experience making Knives and Skin. What was it? The missing-girls thing?

JENNIFER REEDER: No, it was actually something that was more about audience response. When I was touring around doing fests and whatnot with Knives and Skin, I would get asked about my experience working with so many young, teenage girls in front of the camera. And my answer was the same every time: “Oh, I love it. That’s why I keep doing it. It’s really satisfying and fun.” At some point I realized that the assumption from the person asking the question was the opposite. The assumption was that it was that person’s worst nightmare to walk into a room with 22 14-year-old girls. I just really kept thinking about this idea that we are a culture totally obsessed with youth and beauty, among teenage girls in particular, and we are terrified of teenage girls, at least. At the worst, we do what we can to really disrupt their evolution. I was thinking about the terms we use not to uplift adolescent girls but really to diminish their agency or their independence, like “wild” and “out of control.” I was thinking about, “Okay, well, I wonder if I could write a story about a wild and out-of-control girl who really becomes wild and out of control.”

Right around that period of time, I had rewatched the ‘80s iteration of Cat People, which is such a weird film, and was still not done with my fixation on missing girls in both in film and in real life, so I knew that that was going to be another part of the story. But I didn’t want it to be the same as the Carolyn Harper story in Knives and Skin, and I didn’t want to write a sex trafficking story. I thought I could make something that was actually more allegorical and creepy, a kind of girl chop shop. That idea came out of listening to a report about parents trying to track down through backchannels synthetic growth hormone to give to their sons who they didn’t think were tall enough when they were 12.

It seems to me like one of your goals here was to convey the paradoxical treatment of teenage girls in our culture—they’re at once infantilized and protected and yet threatened.

Well, I think you’re absolutely right. In Perpetrator, there’s also this very cynical suggestion that girls and girls alone are accountable for their safety. There’s that with the active-shooter drill—the idea that school kids are incentivized to survive. I actually think that’s not really far off from how we deal with sexual assault on college campuses. You know, those conversations are still aimed towards women about how not to get assaulted. Like, “Okay, ladies, here’s how not to get raped,” rather than starting out on the other side, like, “Hey everybody, keep your hands to yourself.”

But isn’t the suggestion in Perpetrator that, given the way things are, the best girls can do is save each other because no one else is going to do it?

Yes, totally. At some point Jonny realizes that this curse that she has inherited is what will help her survive along with those other girls. I really wanted the film to end at a place where she’s just beginning her journey. We have no idea what kind of potential she has. And she’s there with all of the other kind of final girls who have all survived the film. They’re traumatized. I mean, that is similar to Knives and Skin in the sense that female friendship is a survival strategy.

Did you write the part of Hilde with Alicia Silverstone in mind?

I actually had her in mind when we were casting for Knives and Skin. I really thought it could be very interesting to cast as one of the moms in Knives and Skin a woman who we had been introduced to as an iconic teenager. And it was the same thing when it came time to really begin seriously casting Perpetrator. I loved her, Shudder loved her. I had seen her in Killing of a Sacred Deer, I had seen her in The Lodge, so I knew that she was making weird moves.

When she landed on set, she embraced Hilde so much. Her cadence was different. She lowered the register of her voice. She really wanted to transform herself. She’s a great actor, you know? I loved working with her. We kind of became really fast friends, and I think that had a lot to do with just us trusting each other. She’s extremely smart. I’ve never worked with somebody who’s had that much film experience.

Image:IFC Films

I read a review of the movie that suggested that your copious use of blood was a form of reclamation. Was that part of your goal?

I wanted [Jonny’s] blood to have agency. I wanted her blood to have magic. But how do you show that? It has to come out of her some way, and there’s many ways the blood can come out of a body. Then it has to kind of do things on its own. We definitely wanted the blood—even the blood that comes out of her nose—to have the texture of menstrual blood, which is funky and thick. Our art department had to make gallons and gallons of this stuff that was full of Vaseline and cotton balls. It’s a disgusting recipe to make something seem as oddly textured as menstrual blood.

I didn’t realize until after I was reading reviews that there’s so much blood in this film. I mean, I’ll take it if there’s some press who claim that this is one of the bloodiest films that exist. I don’t mind that.

We definitely wanted the blood—even the blood that comes out of her nose—to have the texture of menstrual blood.

Was Jonny always written as a person of color?

Her race was always open. She was never described as a woman of color in the script. But I always knew that’s who I wanted to cast and not just because I had a sense of how layered that identity is. It just felt like it would be rich to Jonny’s own story. In my first conversation with Kiah, who’s a multiracial woman and a queer woman, she was like, “Oh, I get it.” There is a kind of code switching in her life that translated on some level into Jonny’s life and made perfect sense to Kiah in her own skin.

I really wanted to also make a film for all of the young women of color who are genre superfans, who never see themselves in a film surviving ‘til the end. Or even queer girls who don’t get to see themselves survive to the end. There’s not a moment of homophobia in the script. It just is what it is. There is another conversation around missing girls that is also like, who gets to be found? There’s lots of women of color, lots of indigenous women, sex workers who go missing. They don’t get a slot on Friday night’s Dateline. And even though they’re missed deeply by their friends and family, they’re just disposable. There’s that sense kind of like, “Girls go missing all the time. What’s the big deal?”

So it sounds like you weren’t at all daunted to write Black characters as a white woman.

Yeah. And even talking to Melanie Liburd, who plays Jonny’s mom, I said that exact same thing to her: “This is an opportunity also to really talk about violence against women of color in particular without producing triggering images.” It’s a slippery slope. It’s [about] really being very careful with the script and being careful with how I made the images and then also how I took care of the actors on set, too. There were intimate scenes or scenes of violence that I was always checking in with Kiah. And we had an intimacy coordinator on set, we had a stunt coordinator on set—coincidentally, they are married to each other. I was like, “I have so many questions about your home life, but it’s not appropriate to ask.” We had professionals on set also to make sure that some of the scenes where there was violence were not triggering to the actors.

Image:IFC Films

We’ve talked previously about your embrace of the label “feminist” when applied to yourself and your movies. I wonder if you set out to make feminist movies, or if you think your movies are naturally feminist because they’re made by you?

With Knives and Skin, I got backlash from other feminists who said that it’s not a feminist move to make a story about a dead girl, where we even see the dead girl. There’s been some backlash around Perpetrator saying it’s problematic for a feminist to make a film where we even see violence against women or in which it’s suggested. And yet I stand by this idea that, yeah, of course I’m a feminist, and what feels antifeminist is wagging a finger and saying, “You’re doing feminism wrong.” But that’s the culture that we live in. It would be dishonest and more problematic to me if I made a genre film that didn’t deal with the trope of the missing girl.

Maybe it’s because I’m Midwestern and I’m coming out of third wave riot grrrl feminism, but I’m just like, “What’s the messiest part of this story? Let’s do that. What’s the most problematic part of this story? Let’s not run away from that.” I want cinephiles to like my films. I want the genre film fans to like my films. But I also want those feminist film theorists to teach it and sort of break it down. And I want the crusaders of social justice to have a Perpetrator night and talk about how we implement change in and around issues of violence against women, not by watching a dry, depressing doc, but maybe by watching a gnarly, bloody genre film.

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