[Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14, 2023.]
Feminist horror icon Jennifer Reeder aims to debunk the cultural anxiety of seeing a “girl group” together on screen with her latest film, The Perpetrator. The director chose to translate the identity-searching pain of female adolescence into (literal) a supernatural, shape-shifting thriller set in a high school, complete with a custom role for ’90s high school heroine Alicia Silverstone.
Reeder, whose previous films such as the feature “Knives and Leather” and the short “A Million Miles Away” chronicle characters making their way through tumultuous teenage years, recently told IndieWire that previous audience questions during Q&A panels led to partly to her writing “ Performer. Reeder expands on his 2021 short Forevering with the new film, which follows troubled teenager Joni (Kia McKiernan), who is sent to live with her estranged aunt Hildy (Silverstone).
On his 18th birthday, Johnny undergoes a physical and emotional metamorphosis, the care of a family spell known as Forevering. When several teenage girls go missing at her new school, new (and, according to the film’s official synopsis, rather “mythically”) wild Johnny goes after the man responsible: the titular Perpetrator. Melanie Libird and Christopher Lowell also star in the film, which debuted at this year’s Berlin Film Festival before hitting the festival circuit ahead of Shudder’s theatrical and streaming premiere.
“All the films I’ve made leading up to ‘The Perpetrator’ have involved so many of the nuanced experiences among girls and women,” Reeder said during an interview conducted during her visit to the Tribeca Film Festival in June. “A couple of things I realized as I toured these films was the idea that we are a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, especially among young women, and yet we are a culture that has built a machine that is constantly disrupting their evolution. I wanted to try to figure out how to incorporate that reality and that concept into a film.
Reeder continued, “I’ve also been asked the question, often times in the press Q&As on these previous films, like, what was it like working with so many girls on set? Of course, my answer was always, you know, the same: It’s fantastic. That’s why I continue to work with so many girls and women. But I realized after the twelfth time I was asked the question, it was that there was an assumption that it was horrible and terrifying to work with something like a pack of girls. We use these terms like “wild” and “out of control” often, especially towards young women, to diminish their freedom of choice. I was thinking of making a film about a wild and uncontrollable girl who gets up literally wild and out of control, which is actually the premise of so many kinds of classic shape-shifting stories.
Reeder chose to give the character Johnny the ability to find people based on reading their emotions, a play on how women are considered “too emotional” in an attempt to undermine their abilities. “When I knew I wanted to do something like a shape-shifter story, I knew at the very least that I didn’t want her to be a werewolf or a vampire. I didn’t want her kind of move to be so typical,” Reeder said. “If we as beings could lean into empathy more, or if some people who even had the ability to be a little bit empathetic, the world might be kind of a better place.”
She added: “The more I really started writing this about her strength and making her being overly emotional her superpower, it also made perfect sense to think about that in this story with so many women, this line of really strong women , who were powerful because of their intense ability to emote and feel. As a grown woman, the idea that you are overly emotional or unpredictable based on your emotions is completely absurd and just plain insulting.
At one point in the film, Silverstone’s character notes that being emotional “can be a great weapon.” Reeder added: “I stand firmly behind that statement.”
Reeder said she took additional inspiration from Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” indie horror favorite “Gingersnaps” and “The Cell” to create “Perpetrator.” Actress Silverstone, whose character Aunt Hildy embodies a long lineage of female shapeshifters, revisited “American Psycho,” “The Hunger” and early monster B-movies like “Wasp Woman” to bring charisma and grit to the role.
“I had a lot [Catherine Deneuve in ‘The Hunger’] meaning I changed my voice quite a bit for it,” Silverstone said of preparing for her role. “I was speaking differently and I just wanted to say those words with that old wisdom. I could also feel my mother there a little bit, … Aunt Hildy has that old feel while being so obviously chic and sophisticated and fabulous. It’s almost witchy, but really, she loves her niece Johnny deeply and just doesn’t take bullshit.
Reeder wrote the role of Aunt Hildy for Silverstone, especially since the “Clueless” alum was hopeful casting for “Knives and Skin.” “I’ve been thinking about her for a long time, and I really felt like I was going to work with her one day,” Reeder said. “I was on a plane once when we were actually casting for Knives and Leather and the guy in front of me across the aisle was watching Clueless. I said to myself, “I will not give up on this dream.”
When asked what drew her to Silverstone for this new role, Reeder was clear. “Alicia is an amazing actress. I love her personal background as a mother and as an activist, but also as someone we were introduced to as a real teenager who we’ve kind of watched develop,” she said. “This personal story felt very meta to it, with Alicia playing a powerful matriarch who guides a teenage girl through an incredible transformation. I felt like it was important to have that little core of remembering how we were once introduced to the most brilliant goddess Alicia Silverstone to begin with.”
Signing “Perpetrator” was a no-brainer for Silverstone, the actress said. “I feel really lucky to be able to work with directors that I love working with,” Silverstone said. “This movie was so special to me because my agent said such great things about Jennifer Reeder and he was excited because [Bong Joon Ho] had announced Jennifer Reeder as one of the top directors to watch out for.
She added: “[Jennifer] wrote me a letter and it was the best letter from the principal I have ever received. It was so wonderful. I just knew I was dealing with an artist. I just felt she had such a clear vision. Everything looks so beautiful and she’s dealing with girls and blood all the time, which is weird but also just beautiful.
As Reeder teases, let’s hope there are more Silverstone movies on the horizon. “I’m not done with her,” Reeder said. “I’m getting close with her and I keep promising to do more movies with her, which we definitely will.”
A Shudder release, “Perpetrator” will open in select theaters and begin streaming on Shudder on Friday, September 1st.