Producers: Derek Bishé and Gregory Chambet   Director: Jennifer Reeder   Screenplay: Jennifer Reeder   Cast: Kiah McKirnan, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Lowell, Melanie Liburd, Ireon Roach, Casimir Jollette, Sasha Kusnetsov, Tim Hopper, Josh Bywater, Ilirida Memedovski and Greta Stolte   Distributor: Shudder

Grade: C-

In the prologue of Jennifer Reeder’s film, the villain says to his victim, a young girl he has abducted and is torturing, “This is very bad, but it can always get worse.”  “Perpetrator” itself then goes on to prove the truth of that threat.

Reeder’s blood-splattered movie raises multiple issues around women’s struggle against male oppression within the context of a giallo-type horror film, but fails to articulate them intelligibly or meld them into a coherent whole.

The protagonist is Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan, giving a performance most charitably described as unpolished), a teen who breaks into houses and steals items that her father (Tim Hopper) fences to support them.  She’s dissatisfied with the situation, and he’s physically and psychologically at wits’ end, so he calls his aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone, whose arch, campy act comes off as poor theatre) and asks her to take the girl in.

She agrees, though her attitude when Jonny arrives on her doorstep is more coolly demanding than supportive.  She immediately enrolls the girl in a private school that rivals the one in Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” in strangeness.  It’s the place from which girls—including the one seen in the prologue—are being seized on the street.  It also has a weird staff—a nurse who, from the bandages on her face (which many other adults, including the sheriff, are wearing) is constantly undergoing cosmetic surgery, and a principal (Chris Burke, wildly over-the-top) obsessed with teaching defense classes and drills in which he dresses in a mask and breaks into classes with a gun spraying red paint.

Jonny connects with some fellow students, including a few girls whose records detailing failures to adhere to defense procedures she promises to get expunged.  But most noticeably she rejects an approach from campus Lothario Kirk (Sasha Kusnetsov), a jock who turns out to be the sheriff’s son (and the stepson of the nurse)—and who dated all of the girls who have disappeared.  Instead she takes up with Elektra (Ireon Roach), a sweet-natured classmate who also feels like a misfit.

On the home front, Jonny is at point of turning eighteen, and suffers episodes in which great amounts of blood are involved; indeed, menstruation is a subject alluded to regularly.  But more pointedly, Hildie prepares her a cake filled with blood, and while taking a stern attitude toward the girl’s proclivity for lifting other people’s property (at one point she commands the girl to eat one of the items she’s pilfered—Jonny chooses a lipstick) also informs her that she’s developing a genetic ability she calls Forevering, which is explained as a sort of turbocharged empathy.  It allows—or forces—the person to share the emotions and experiences of others, but apparently also allows one to impose your experiences on others, though frankly what the condition involves remains at best unclear.

Jonny determines to find the perpetrator of the abductions, employing her special powers to help the girls he’s taken to escape captivity.  She enlists both Elektra and Kirk in the investigation, but in the end her success will depend on the intervention of not just Hildie but Jonny’s long-absent mother Jean (Melanie Liburd); the outcome is a revelation about the girl’s true father, though there’s also a “I’m Spartacus!”-inspired moment, though one much more crudely expressed.

One presumes that Reeder is trying to say something meaningful here, while also gleefully exulting in outrageous employing in horror movie tropes.  Unfortunately, she fails on both counts.  The message of “Perpetrator” is at best muddy, while its horrific elements mostly come down to splashes of blood and gore, surrealistic imagery and fizzy montages courtesy of cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati (an unfortunate surname, given what’s happening onscreen) and editor Justin Krohn, and a throbbingly sinister score from Nick Zinner.  Adri Siriwatt’s production design looks threadbare in Kastrati’s otherwise drab visuals, though Kate Grube’s costumes show flashes of imagination.  As for the supporting cast, they vary from the utterly amateurish and simply bland to the brazenly lip-smacking.

Jennifer Reeder has gotten strong praise from some critics, but at least on the basis of this ghoulish,  ambitious mishmash, it’s hardly justified.