Thank goodness for Jennifer Reeder. She is a breath of fresh air in the horror world. What she brings to the screen is so needed in terms of representing the things that young women, and women of all ages, have faced at one point or another. We needed a place to channel a collective rage cathartically through horror, and Jennifer Reeder made that possible. All of her work is dedicated to elevating the value of young women—their agency and sexuality in a real way, and the things we deal with in our misogynistic society. She knows what is missing on screen when it comes to our periods, which happens once a month for people with a uterus. The only place I’ve seen it represented onscreen, and not in the horrific way we sometimes deal with it, is in “Saint Frances,” starring Kelly O’Sullivan, another Chicago-based person in film. But thank goodness for “Perpetrator” and Jennifer Reeder in taking all of this to a heightened level, and the blood—thank you for the blood, Jennifer.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer about her feature, which premieres at the Music Box tonight. It will be available to stream on Shudder and view in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 1st.

Jennifer Reeder

What inspired this film? 

During the time “Knives and Skin” was released, and even when I made the shorts that led up to the film, I was doing Q&As and talking to press, and I would get the same question over and over again about what was my experience working with so many young women? My answer was always, “It’s awesome, that’s why I keep doing it.” But then I realized they were asking me that question because they assumed it was not great to work with young women, and not just by guys—all genders. It really started to occur to me in a much more meaningful way that we are a culture that’s obsessed with youth and beauty, especially among young women. Yet we’ve also built this machine that is only meant to disrupt their evolution. This obsession also converts to hate, which translates that we actually hate young women. They know that and they feel that. You just need to turn on the news for thirty seconds to understand why our culture hates women. It gets even worse if you’re a woman of color.

I was also thinking about the language that we use to diminish a young woman who has agency, or is aware of their sexuality, for instance. We call them “wild and out-of-control.” We have a different way of describing a young man who, let’s say, is “feeling himself” as a teenage boy. My mind was kind of juicy after “Knives and Skin,” and I thought I want to make a film about a wild and out-of-control girl who really becomes wild and out-of-control. It’s like a shape-shifter story. And coincidentally, I had just re-watched the 80s iteration of “Cat People” (1982). It’s a film that I love so dearly, which is a different kind of shape-shifter story. It’s also complicated because the main character played by Nastassja Kinski is a virgin and there is a big deal around her virginity. It’s partly a problematic film, but also very great as a nuanced shape-shifter story. There’s that kind of epic story about inheriting shape-shifting from centuries before.

One of the producers for “Perpetrator,” Gregory Chambet, who actually did the foreign sales for “Knives and Skin” right after the US release in spring 2020, said, “What do you want to work on next?” And I said, “I’ve been thinking about doing a kind of nuanced shape-shifter story, like a coming-of-age ‘Cat People.'” He was like, ‘Let’s do it,’ and here we are.

Having said that too, I knew that I didn’t want her to become a vampire or a werewolf. I mean, god bless the vampires and the werewolves, but I wanted to make it something that felt a little more unexpected, a little more allegorical. I was also thinking a lot about the power of empathy, and its impacts as it’s related to the sense of emotionality in women, and how that’s never seen as an asset. It’s only seen as another way to diminish women. Again, I think it’s obvious when you switch on the news and you can see the petulant men in Washington DC.

Even Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) has a line that I feel very proud of having written. She says, “an emotional basket case can be a very powerful weapon.” I have a habit of writing characters who make powerful the thing that they are told to diminish. 


And the same thing with blood. Humans with uteruses from an early age have a pretty consistent and gnarly relationship with blood. 

I’m so glad you elevated that, because it’s not elevated enough. It’s just gone from the screens.

Yes, it’s gone, and it’s even gone from every onscreen conversation. I mean, just based on commercials, you would think that it was a watery pale blue substance, and it comes out at like teaspoons at a time. 

But it’s more like how it is in your film.

That’s right, because any given month it could be a one-person crime scene. I just wanted to show that and to think about her blood and her body as being magical, having its own agency, and have blood be a sign of violence. When Johnny (Kiah McKirnan) gets hit by that kid in the car and she gets a bloody nose, the blood is angry by itself and at the world. She realizes that her blood has the ability to expand and grow into a giant well of blood, for instance. When I wrote that scene, I thought this is going to work really well or it’s not going to make any sense, or we’re not going to be able to shoot it practically, etc.

It made sense to me. 

I do feel really proud about how the scene turned out. I definitely took some risks, in terms of the narrative, how the story was told, and how the characters developed. What I am suggesting, not unlike a lot of my other films, is that “Perpetrator” will either resonate with you or it won’t, and that’s totally fine. I have experienced very few people who’ve seen my films and are like, ‘Eh, it was OK.’ They’re more like, ‘This was great,’ or not.

They have feelings. 

Yes, they have feelings one way or another. There are no exceptions so far. 

Alicia Silverstone in “Perpetrator”

Can you talk about how Alicia Silverstone and Kiah McKirnan came to the project?

I had Alicia Silverstone in mind for “Knives and Skin.” I had been thinking about her for a while. It felt like she would have been great in the film, because of her prominence as an adult woman. I was thinking about her for the Lisa Harper character, until we attached Marika Englehart, who is brilliant.

When it came time to start casting for “Perpetrator”, I suggested asking Alicia to join the project. She had a small, memorable part in “The Killing of the Sacred Deer,” and also in “The Lodge,” so I knew she was interested in making some weird moves in her career. I just thought we’ve got to give it a try. So I wrote her a letter about casting her as this really powerful matriarch, who could pass the “Forevering” power down. I talked to her about patterning her character Hildie after the Catherine Deneuve character from “The Hunger.” I was really thinking that I wanted to stylize her in a particular style in a way that she hadn’t been seen before. And she said that letter convinced her to read the script, and that her team had already read the script and they really liked it for her. 

So Alicia got attached to the film with very little effort on some level, and then she was like, ‘Great, I want to do it.’ And then she dove really deep into the script and was asking me really specific questions where I was like, ‘I’ll have to think about that, I’m not sure what the answer is.’ She’s such a professional in the sense that she really got in there and studied the material. She watched “The Hunger” for the first time, and went down the Deneuve rabbit hole, as one does. 

Kiah McKirnan in “Perpetrator”

With Kiah, I had been talking to a lot of young actresses, in particular, young actresses of color. I knew that I wanted to cast a young woman of color. When I spoke to Kiah, one of the things that she said that she really loved about the script was that she identified with Johnny as a multi-racial woman herself, and as a queer woman. Her reaction felt really unexpected and meaningful. What Kiah thought would be this light genre film about a shape-shifting teenager actually became something really meaningful to her own identity as a multi-racial queer woman. She was the only young actress who had said that. I had not planned on finding an actress that resonated so much with her character. I knew I wanted to cast a woman of color at the very least. I also knew that I wanted her mother and father relationship to be more complicated without too many spoilers. I think when the mother finally appears, it’s a real surprise. 

I have two quotes that I’d love to share with you from two of my past interviews that I feel connect well to your film:

The first is from Nancy Miller‘s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” docuseries, a quote from Patton Oswalt: “Patton said this really well, ‘the world is angry when they see young beautiful, smart, vivacious women living independently. And there is this compulsion to want to steal that from them. And that is profound misogyny.'”

And here is Sarah Polley on”Women Talking”: “I think no one is immune to the patriarchy, so I guess that my great wish would be that we’re all in a process of unlearning what we’ve learned in a world that is structured in this way according to a gender hierarchy as well as a race hierarchy and a class hierarchy. I think there are a lot of hierarchies to be unpacked—they come out of us in unconscious ways all the time.”

I also set out to make a film where, again, it’s a story about a missing girl—in this case, multiple missing girls. In the course of writing “Perpetrator,” I knew I didn’t want the girls to be sex-trafficked. I just thought, ‘Why are they being taken?’ You can have a missing girl, and that in itself feels terrifying, and there is also a subtext about what girls that go missing who get to be found, and what girls go missing who are never found. 

Like Indigenous and Trans women.

Yes, of course. I wanted to imply that the girls are being taken apart, literally. I wanted to make this very radical suggestion that they were being taken apart without their consent, and that there was a villain out there that was so bad that if you really wanted something, like ‘oh your hair is so pretty,’ you’d actually get her scalp. When Elektra speaks about Evelyn and Evelyn’s eyes being missing, she says, “Everybody wanted her eyes,” and what if you could actually have her eyes. 

I think that this goes back to that sense of what Patton Oswalt’s quote is really about, stripping a young woman of all of her youth and vivaciousness, and I’m taking that to the most radical level, like literally taking her hair, or her eyes. 

It’s like taking her identity.

Yes, her identity. And I think even for Sarah’s quote, my response to that is also about the way that women can internalize misogyny, and the way that fighting back can become exhausting. Fighting back against yourself can be exhausting, and fighting back against that misogyny can be exhausting, but coupled with that are internalized self-hate and self-doubt. It can go from self-doubt to a vicious self-hate. That’s also related to racism, homophobia and transphobia. Balancing all of that can be so tough, and I think that it is like the razor’s edge between feeling empowered against the world, and then feeling defeated against yourself. 

Christopher Lowell in “Perpetrator”

I think it’s so interesting that you worked with Christopher Lowell, especially after his performance in “Promising Young Women”

He has the heart of an artist. If you look at his Instagram, it’s all his own black and white photography. He came to set with this beautiful vintage Holga camera, and he took a bunch of great photographs. He’s an artist, and I think that’s evident in the roles that he chooses. In his real life, he is charming, and I wanted to cast a villain that was handsome and charming, in the same kind of way that it works for “American Psycho,” with Patrick Bateman. If it wasn’t Christian Bale, I don’t think it would have worked. You know it’s that conundrum of the super-villain who’s also attractive and charming. There’s something there.

And in the same way, I loved casting Alicia as the matriarch, a different grown-up version of Cher Horowitz from “Clueless.” I also thought it would be interesting to cast the end villain from “Promising Young Woman” as another different kind of villain. He just gets his own comeuppance, I’ll say. 

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