Take the sapphic steaminess of the neo-noir thriller Bound, add a dash of psycho-sexual sadism from The Piano Teacher, stir it with a Saw, score it with Mozart, throw in a few twists of Black Swan, top it off with a nod to Tod Browning’s Freaks, and voila, you have The Perfection, Richard Shepard’s stylish and immensely satisfying horror movie now streaming on Netflix.
The title refers to playing the cello at a rarefied level of perfection, the goal of top students at the exclusive Bachoff Academy. Tellingly, it seems the academy is only interested in the developing the careers of young women, girls really, under the tutelage of the suave Anton Bachoff (Steven Weber) and his glamorous wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman). We later learn the academy has been in his family for three generations, which helps explain the couple’s obvious wealth (though not their musical credentials). Ten years ago their star protege was Charlotte (Allison Williams, last seen in Get Out), who left the academy and her promising career to care for her ailing mother. The film opens with the mother’s death, and quick flashbacks reveal the past ten years haven’t been easy on Allison’s psyche. Now on her own, she seeks out her former mentors, who are in Shanghai promoting Allison’s successor, a stunning beauty named Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women quickly form a mutual admiration society, go out partying, and end up in bed together. The next morning Charlotte helps Lizzie get over her hangover with some pills and hair of the dog, and they then board a bus headed toward China’s rural interior on what was supposed to be a much-needed vacation for Lizzie. Bad things happen on the bus. Worse things happen once the women get thrown off the bus. Next comes the gruesome end of Lizzie’s career as a cellist on the side an empty road in the middle of nowhere China. To say more would spoil the fun, and the numerous unexpected surprises that follow are fun of the most horrific (and tension-filled) kind. This is the kind of movie you immediately want to tell your friends about after seeing it, which makes it a shame it’s not available in theaters, where watching it surrounded by other fans of the genre would turn a great movie into a great movie experience.
I’m an adherent of the theory horror films reflect the social and cultural fears of the era in which they’re made, but without giving too much away, there’s no special insight gained by reading The Perfection as #MeToo era commentary (the film works too well to miss it,) and the film’s creators acknowledge the influence of the Harvey Weinstein scandal as they made the film (though the origin of the story came from Shepard’s fear of getting seriously ill in a foreign country with no access to healthcare). However, given its milieu, the nastiness driving The Perfection’s plot hews closer to the James Levine and Larry Nassar scandals. But there are more critical layers under its #MeToo/female empowerment surface, including the cost of seeking perfection, trusting authority, being a foreigner, and the price of maintaining silence - all of which make the film feel of the moment, but executed at a level that makes it anything but trendy.
It’s rare to see a horror film set anywhere near the classical music world, and when it is, it’s often used as code to depict a special kind of rarefied crazy (Hannibal, Black Swan, The Hunger, The Phantom of the Opera), but setting The Perfection in this world works on a number of levels. First, it renders the protagonists as intelligent, talented, and determined - and while the depiction of female characters in horror movies has thankfully been evolving, the Ripleys are still too few and far between. That Charlotte and Lizzie are attractive, and at least initially appear to be normal (as in the kind of people one might actually know or would like to know in real life) works against cultural stereotypes and assumptions. Lizzie is an especially appealing character. Pierced nose, hot shoes, dressed to kill, given the opportunity to take a break from her rigorous performing and practice schedule, the girl wants to get down to having some serious fun, and Charlotte’s judgement can’t be faulted for not wanting to come along. In fact, we’d question her judgment if she didn’t.
An added plus is the music - while two scenes feature hip-hop prominently in the soundtrack, it’s refreshing to see the score in a horror film prominently featuring classical music up front as part of the story instead of being used to enhance the dread factor. The original score by Paul Haslinger is impressive, and the musical selections make sense. There’s even a kind of game when things start to go wrong where Charlotte tells Lizzie to start naming composers from A to Z as a means to keep her shit together. “A” turns out to be Adams. Whether she meant John or John Luther Adams is unclear, but when is either composer ever going to be mentioned in a horror movie again? Or any non-documentary for that matter? On top of that, the last scene of this movie is unforgettable, destined to be iconic, and couldn’t work nearly as well in a different setting. As an aside, the writers either know this world fairly well, or did some pretty good research in order to get some of its basics right.
But first and foremost, The Perfection is a straight-up horror film, gore-laden to the point it won’t appeal to the squeamish or those that don’t already appreciate the genre. Casual fans might even turn it off shortly after Lizzie and Charlotte get on the bus. For the rest of us, The Perfection will rank high among the best horror films of the past decade. It’s smart, splattery, and scary fun. It’s also remarkably visually arresting - especially the scenes set in Shanghai ( the cinematography is by Vanja Cerjul, Crazy Rich Asians). Most of all, its success is due to Williams and Browning, who go all in on the material and never hit a false note.