If you consider yourself a casual film fan, chances are you’ve still heard of the term “elevated horror” — a new term used to describe certain horror films such as Hereditary, The VVitch, and Suspiria. As the horror genre steadily reclaimed its cultural dominance, countless think pieces have praised numerous filmmakers for making tales of terror “smart again” by applying auteur techniques to less conventional narratives. The inadvertent result of all this is the implication that horror ever needed elevating, even though at its pulpiest the horror genre has long been used as a catalyst for the most original stories filmmaking has ever produced. To suggest trashiness doesn’t have its merits in horror is to ignore decades of movie genre history.
There are few films more attuned to the ebbs and flows of this argument than The Perfection, writer-director Richard Shepard’s gleefully twisty, campy thriller that sees two master cellists locked in a battle of jealousy and obsession. The film plays like Shepard is sifting through a grab bag of twisted delights; it’s an erotic thriller one moment, deranged body horror the next. What makes it all work is how Shepard uses the concept of elevated horror to place a veil over your eyes. His camera lures you in with the striking imagery and entrancing performances that turned the term into a concept before pulling the rug out from underneath you with a healthy dose of schlock.
Allison Williams, continuing to subvert her polite suburban girl image, gives a subtle and brilliant performance that makes you think you know how this film is going to play out from the onset. She plays Charlotte, a once-rising cellist whose career became sidelined by taking care of her ailing mother. Through thousand-yard stares and half-baked smiles, Williams crafts Charlotte like a ticking time bomb whose re-introduction to her old mentor Anton (Steve Weber) and his star pupil Lizzie (Logan Browning) can only point to trouble. However, even as the film takes steps to set up a tale of envy gone wild, lurid affair and all, it never goes in the direction, Shepard thinks you will predict.
Instead, the film turns into a consistently unpredictable and nasty piece of horror. The Perfection is less the Get Out/Whiplash hybrid it appears to be and more of a love letter to the beloved, but deranged madness of filmmakers like Oldboy director Park Chan-wook. Blood, bile, and bugs seep from every corner of this thriller until the filth is spilling over, threatening to pour out from your television. This dread continues to pile up until the film transforms into a full-blown exploitation thriller filled with some particularly stellar practical effects. The final act is where the film reveals the darkest depths of its rotten heart, which might be too much for some audiences to bear. However, if you have a taste for full-blown depravity, there are nuggets of gold to find among all the bodily fluids.
The Perfection uses the elevated horror shtick as a method to subvert expectations — the film uses its unabashed trashiness to provide intelligent commentary on the intersection between toxic masculinity and its claims over art. Shephard and his co-writers Nicole Synder and Eric C. Charmelo turn what seems to be a script dripping with the male-gaze into a damning exploration of the lengths men will go to manipulate creativity, using B-movie thrills to set up an unexpected ending that’s more progressive than it lets on. The script’s thesis isn’t working on the level of the numerous horror films that brought the elevated horror tag to life, but its thoughtfulness proves even the corniest corners of the horror genre can provide impactful cultural commentary.
It helps that it’s all sold by Williams and Browning, who turn in a reliable pair of performances that proves both have the talent to spare. Williams, who cemented herself as a dynamic actress with her startling performance in Get Out, continues to amaze through a dialed-in performance that the film more or less hinges upon. Browning is an excellent scene partner who nails everything the film is asking of her, from selling the nightmare of her predicament in the middle portion of the film to the ferociousness she exudes in the climax. Also excellent is Weber, whose turn as Charlotte and Lizzie’s pretentious and arrogant teacher is a damning takedown of upper-class privilege.
The Perfection falters in its tonal shifts, which often change the film’s pace so wildly that the strength of the dialogue can’t keep up with it, but make no mistake, this is a cheesy, direct-to-video style work that like many Netflix acquisitions will be classified as more of a guilty pleasure than anything else. However, if you can accept that The Perfection doesn’t quite live up to its title, you’ll find a beautiful little curio that proves horror doesn’t need to be “elevated” to hit the right notes.
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