The Perfection” (Netflix) has one of those trailers that seems to give away the whole movie, so after making the mistake of watching the trailer, I let it fade from my mind a bit before watching the film. As it turns out, this horror thriller from director/co-writer Richard Shepard – who has a lot of credits but not many “wow” credits before this – is only partly like the trailer suggests. “The Perfection” so smoothly toys with and contradicts our narrative expectations that I wonder why more movies don’t use this tactic.
(Light spoilers follow.)
As she does in “Get Out,” “Girls” veteran Allison Williams plays someone we assume we can trust to be the audience surrogate: She’s Charlotte, a cello prodigy whose career was truncated when she departed the academy run by Anton (Steven Weber) to care for her dying mom. After her mom passes away several years later, Charlotte sees on billboards that Lizzie (Logan Browning) is the new It Girl of cello. At one of Anton’s functions in China, the young women bond partly over cello music, but even more over the stress of their chosen (or was it chosen for them?) profession.
When the girls embark on their vacation through the backroads of China, “The Perfection” features a horror scenario so basic and visceral it’s a wonder it’s not more of a staple. One of the girls experiences serious stomach issues, without a bathroom nearby, on a bus full of strangers. That’s more of a nightmare than a knife-wielding slasher, as far as I’m concerned.
Because it dodges expectations, “The Perfection” runs the risk of making viewers think about what movie it could have been. After all, Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder (the duo behind the Sarah Michelle Gellar TV series “Ringer”) nicely convey the nightmare of being stuck while sick in remote China (with British Columbia as a stand-in). This could be a gripping opening act of an “Outbreak”-type story. When the film pulls back from that, I thought, “But they were doing that so well.”
“The Perfection” challenges itself to hook the viewer not merely once, but multiple times as it gives us blasts of new information that reset our perspective and understanding of what it’s about. It gives itself more chances to fail. But because it succeeds every time, it becomes a smarter horror film than those that merely play familiar notes well. Shepard also nails brief, contained horror moments, such as the way he conveys the terror of rape with a quick image of a blurry naked man walking toward the camera; it’s like an arthouse answer to the haunting imagery from “It Follows.”
Because of the presence of Williams, I’m tempted to compare “The Perfection” to “Get Out,” and there are broad similarities with its narrative of twists and turns and its slight vibe of pitch-black humor. “Get Out” famously has a strong thematic statement, getting at black-white race relations via an insane sci-fi plot.
I don’t think “The Perfection” goes as thematically deep, but it certainly turns a cello academy into something sinister, calling to mind what “Suspiria” does for ballet, but in a tidy 90-minute package. This is no doubt unfair to perfectly innocent cello academies, but it’s a brilliant thing to focus a horror film on since most of us know nothing about this world. But we might be aware that it’s not unusual for musical prodigies to come off as disconnected from mainstream society, and even from the rest of popular culture. That doesn’t mean their learning environments are horrific, but it does lead a viewer to think: “Is there something about the academy that shapes their almost inhuman talent?”
“The Perfection” plays its notes well, but more impressively, it reorganizes them into a composition we haven’t heard before.