CELLO, IS IT ME YOU'RE LOOKING FOR?
The Perfection (15)
Director: Richard Shepard
Review: David Stephens
If you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re a character in a horror film, never become involved in the performing arts. If you’re not mutilated in a German dance academy (“Suspiria”), then you undergo a traumatic transformation as a Prima Ballerina (“Black Swan”), or you inadvertently use a voodoo tune in a jazz solo and doom yourself (“Dr Terror’s House of Horrors”). There’s something about the intensity and dedication that the top performers and maestros give to their chosen art, which feels a little alien and scary to us ‘normal’ 9-to-5 joes with mainstream jobs. This is probably why “Black Swan” and dramas like “Whiplash” tend to do so well on a critical and commercial basis. These movies tap into the intensity and sacrifice that the characters are driven to, and sometimes the darkness that comes with that. Waffle aside, this just forms part of the cheerfully sick and twisted opus that is “The Perfection”, the latest Netflix original to embrace horror. This Miramax-financed production premiered last September at Fantastic Fest, to some pretty darned good reviews it has to be said. As they are now prone to do, Netflix summarily snapped it up for distribution. Directed and co-written by Richard Shepard (best known for TV shows “Girls” and “30 Rock”), it is a bona-fide horror film with more twists and turns than a British politician trying to sound like a human being. It stars Allison Williams (well on her way now to becoming an accomplished scream-queen after “Get Out”), Logan Browning (“Dear White People”), and Steven Weber (“I, Zombie” & “Sleepy Hollow”). The story is set within the upper echelons of the classical orchestral world but you don’t have to go to an Opera House, as it’s now streaming on Netflix UK and USA. YGROY top-hat-and-tails for this surprisingly nasty bit of chamber music.
It starts with the stark image of a dead woman in a bed. The stiff in question belongs to the mother of Charlotte (a suitably note-perfect Williams), who has just carked it after being cared for many years by her daughter. At one time Charlotte was a virtuoso Cellist and the poster-girl for the prestigious Bachoff Academy, run by the sought-after academic and musician Anton (Weber). But her Mother’s illness meant the end of a promising career and she left, leaving the stage (literally) clear for the upcoming Lizzie (Browning) to become his new protégé and celebrity. With her life now having undergone another seismic shift, Charlotte reaches out to Anton and they meet up at an event in Shanghai. Despite the potential for awkwardness, she also meets Lizzie socially for the first time and they even duet together in the concert hall. There’s also no denying the chemistry and attraction between them. However an odd occurrence during an evening buffet seems to be an ill omen of events to come… which they do, in variously unexpected ways.
Before we continue, we’ll just say that this is one of those plots that ultimately works best the less you know about it. If you’ve seen the short trailer, there’s already one sick little twist that you’ve been deprived of experiencing cold. But there are still plenty more, and you’re never quite sure where the next one is going to come from. However, rest assured that this review is spoiler-free. Also be advised that “The Perfection” somehow manages to be classy and trashy at the same time, which is quite a trick to pull off. As the narrative ties itself in knots (although never at the expense of the storytelling), you get quite the smorgasbord of nasty little treats which lead to a satisfyingly grim final scene. One of the best things about the plot is that several sick little details are teased at certain points, and it bounces between markedly different sub-genres during the running time. (NB: For one giddy second it looks like we’re getting a zombie apocalypse flick!) But it smartly makes use of several cinematic methods to keep the viewer on top of all the shenanigans that are going on. It has been described as “Black Swan with a cellist”, although it’s actually more like “Martyrs Meets Whiplash” (in tone if not content). Yes, it is that twisted…
It helps when you’ve top-class talent in the foreground, and both Williams and Browning are excellent in all facets of their characters. Williams gifts her role with a palpable touch of vulnerability as well as other tropes (including some fine swearing), and Browning surprises with a substantially layered performance that is spot-on for the story. As mentioned, it’s a tricky film to praise without revealing some of the plot or techniques, but in some respects it adopts the ghoulishness of the ‘French Extreme’ horror movement as it revels in injury details and distasteful practises. There’s some VERY gory moments to qualify it as hardcore horror (including a jaw-dropping moment with an arm… and, no, not the one seen in the trailer… that’s small potatoes), and whilst the bad taste ramps up towards the end, there’s a wicked tongue-in-cheek humour that bleeds through the middle of it and qualifies it as entertainment. That final image could have you laughing or wincing in equal measures. To its credit it’s also very smartly written. How smart? Well, clever enough to include a plot development in the very font of its title.
If there’s any complaint to be made it’s that the episodic nature of the plot is a little too neat and manufactured, possibly spoiling some of the story development (especially as you actually get title cards as well!). A couple of CG shots are a bit cheap-looking, but on the flip-side there are also some totally convincing ones as well. And then if you’re expecting some high-class arts-movie horror with subtle motifs, it’s not quite that. This is pure exploitation horror with a posh accent, and it’s not afraid to slay it. For some imaginative and unexpected nastiness, that’s still well-acted, well-shot, and rife with gallows humour, just take a seat in the box for this mess-terpiece set in the world of music and be thankful that you only ever learned to play “3 Blind Mice” on the recorder. Very much recommended for those that like their horror nice n’ nasty. Now if we could just persuade Williams to do nothing else except horror from now on…