Nothing says instant cinematic classic like a climactic moment involving shitting on a bus. Or is that an instant trash classic? Either way, Netflix’s The Perfection blasted its way into my heart like an explosive bowel movement, with the alternately shrieking and whimpering dialogue: “If I move, I’ll shit! I’m going to shit on the bus! I can’t hold it! I’m going to shit!” Now, that’s writing even John Waters could envy. Imagine delivering the line “If I move, I’ll shit” at a table reading. I’m not even an actress and I’m reconsidering my career decisions.
This scene, for which I’ll assume the film earned its title since it is, in my filth-loving eyes, the pinnacle of perfection, concerns poor Lizzie (Logan Browning), a famed expert cellist who ran into some unfortunately timed gastrointestinal problems, among other potentially bug-related ailments, on a bus traversing the Chinese countryside. Her partner (in crime) is Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams), a former cello prodigy that joined Lizzie on her back roads tour of China after she and Lizzie, well, hit it off at some snooty cello recruitment event in Shanghai hosted by Anton (Steven Weber/the guy from Wings) who runs the creepy, I mean, illustrious musical academy Bachoff Institute. While Charlotte previously left the institute after her mother fell ill, returning to Anton’s side after her death, Lizzie is the current favored cult member. And when I say hit it off, Charlotte and Lizzie fell hard into a romance, dueting, flirting, dancing and boinking all in one evening, all brought on by some hilariously hackneyed and unconvincing lines like “You’ll always be the person who makes my heart skip a beat when you play” and “I know I shouldn’t spy but it gets me wet.” Take it easy, girls.
But, whew, talk about a walk of shame! Waking up with a hangover, the two get on a dingy bus with fellow riders, one of whom is carrying an entire chicken coop. Lizzie downs a half-bottle of what she thinks is Ibuprofen and proceeds to puke, slam her head against windows, and writhe around, shouting about shitting on the bus. Who hasn’t been there?! For her part, Allison Williams excels at the role of the bug-eyed indignant “Can I speak to your manager, sir?!” white woman, a role she’s apparently been born to play. She shouts louder and louder at the non-English-speaking bus driver, “Sir! Stop the fucking bus!” while guiding Lizzie through her intestinal trauma. Yeah, that’ll help. Eventually, Lizzie does make it off the bus, and with some appropriately disgusting sound effects, takes a dump on the side of the road, before pulling up her g-string.
Give everyone involved in this scene all the awards! Of course, the real victims here are the doomed fellow bus riders, the true heroes of the film. I would have tossed these messy Americans off the bus way earlier than the bus driver did. The bus-shitting scene is so iconic, unforgettable and overwhelming in its mastery of trash cinema that it even overshadows a scene that follows closely in which Lizzie chops her hand off with a meat cleaver, which Charlotte just happens to have in her travel kit (always be prepared!). That’s how good it is. It should be immediately memorialized in Hollywood history or, at the very least, placed belatedly in the Met’s current Camp: Notes on Fashion.
Sometimes I write because I have something pressing to say about a cultural object, and other times, I’m just trying to desperately make other people bear witness with me. The Perfection is undoubtedly the latter. Directed by Richard Shepard (who also did a couple GIRLS episodes, which explains Williams’s casting) and written by Shepard, Nicole Snyder, and Eric C. Carmelo, The Perfection is only 90 minutes, but it packs that hour and a half full of jaw-dropping, eye-popping moments of pure horror camp. Cult classics often are a slow burn, taking years for viewers to realize the terrible genius that assaulted their eyes. But, not The Perfection. I sat in slack-jawed disbelief throughout the film, wondering how the hell this got made. It’s something any true believer in trash should see (and for you queer lovers of horror who want to be recognized, I want to recommend participating in a survey Queer for Fear on the habits and experiences of queer fans of horror that is part of PhD research at Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies by Heather O. Petrocelli).
Now, spoiler alert! The Perfection is objectively not a good movie. It’s not even a so-so movie. It’s pure so-bad-it’s-good excellence. The acting is over-the-top and horrendous. The entire film seems as if it took tropes and scenes from other, better films and made them exponentially worse to hilarious effect. It’s got the anal retentive psychosis and girl-on-girl romance of Black Swan’s ballet company transposed on a musical institute, the wooden acting of Showgirls, the wood-lined interior space for sexual violence of The Handmaiden, the strangely misogynist feminist revenge of numerous Quentin Tarantino films, and even a surprise forced performance in red that reminded me of “Rose Tint My World” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The plot is baffling and bizarre, going through multiple twists and turns that just serve to make it even more ridiculous rather than shocking. Turns out that Charlotte drugged Lizzie with her mother’s drugs, convincing her through her insect-driven hallucinations to chop her own hand off, in order to save her! She wanted to rescue her from Anton and his goons who apparently rape you into musical perfection in a dungeon-like space called the Chapel in Bachoff. I don’t want to spoil the entire film, but the duo eventually do get their revenge, but not before a scene in which Lizzie acts as if she’s going to rape Charlotte with her handless stump. “I hope your cunt can handle it,” she growls. That should really be the tagline of the film. I want T-shirts.
The biggest plot twist of The Perfection, though, seems to be that a significant amount of film critics adore it. The film has a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and The New York Times reviewed it positively, praising its “wit and precision.” What are these people on? Can I have some? I can’t think of the last time a film that included near rape with an amputated limb or lines like “Now we’re going to fucking chop your balls off and sell them as trinkets” has garnered so much mainstream praise.
Partially I think this critical acclaim has to do with the film’s producers, filmmakers and actresses understanding The Perfection as some sort of radical feminist gesture, and critics in 2019 are too fearful to point out that maybe it’s not. Perhaps using rape and potential pedophilia as a plot device isn’t the best way to make a point about girl power. Nevertheless, the humorlessness with which those involved in the film take themselves does add an additional layer of unintentional camp hilarity to the entire shit show, as seen in the recent New York Times piece “The #MeToo Horror of ‘The Perfection’” In the article, one of the film’s producers Stacey Reiss apparently seriously argues: “This is a film about women supporting other women. It’s this idea that we’re all in this together.” By cutting each other’s hands off? Maybe try a conversation first?
More than revolutionary feminism, The Perfection crew, instead, unintentionally made a slick Hollywood version of a Cinema of Transgression film. Think I’m exaggerating? Imagine Lydia Lunch snarling out a line like “I hope your cunt can handle it!” or “Because she’s a jealous fucking bitch!” Just a small tweak in casting and you’re suddenly watching a Richard Kern film. And sure, the Cinema of Transgression films have always had the production value of a snuff film. The Perfection avoids this sleazy feel by its higher production budget. And yet, The Perfection’s reveling in transgressive imagery reminds me quite a bit of the “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto” penned by Orion Jeriko, the pseudonym of Nick Zedd. When he argued, “We propose to go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality, or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men,” I bet he was imagining scenes like stump rape or puking maggots all over a bus.
But, what does it mean that something this trashily transgressive, strangely familiar to lovers of underground cinema, can be found on Netflix? Is it a fluke? Is trash now treasure to streaming services?
Naturally, this cinematic horror trash aesthetic, as we know it today, is wholly linked to that mid-20th century era of sci-fi and horror B-movies. I’d argue that this post-World War II trash infection transformed from handsy teens skulking around a drive-in cinema, ignoring the garbage onscreen, to later 20th century straight-to-video stinkers. You remember–those films that were so bad not even theaters wanted them. Instead, they hid, unloved and unwanted, in the boring shelves of the now defunct Blockbuster only to be snatched up by a determined and demented hand.
But what ever happened to the straight-to-video industry, those filmic brain farts that everyone knew were terrible as they was being produced? Well, it seems that Netflix has picked up the slack, becoming the new and much-needed bastion of trash cinema. While I loved Velvet Buzzsaw, I’m not so blinded by my adoration of everything awful as to think it was a high quality film, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile only seemed to prove that dead-eyed Ted Bundy himself had way more charisma than Zac Efron could ever hope for. And then, we have The Perfection, 2019’s unexpected gift to trash lovers everywhere.
Hilariously, it seems that director Richard Shepard doesn’t consider the film trash himself, but he felt compelled to evoke the aesthetic category. He asserts in The Times: “This movie could easily have been trash, and some people might think that, but I think it’s more than that…It’s got a lot going on.” It certainly does! I mean, the film even has a dramatic wig reveal scene. Standing beside Lizzie who threateningly holds a meat cleaver, Charlotte pulls off her brown bob to reveal…a brown pixie cut! A classic wig reveal is just the pinnacle of trash cinema.
Ultimately, there is something just so incredibly refreshing about trying to make a woke horror film, but being unable to avoid the stain of trash. And good thing! We need more trash, even woke trash. Since the conservatives seem to have mastered both camp and trash, our side has to pick up the slack. And anyway, laughing at absolutely horrifying and shocking events have always been an essential tenant of queer culture. As Esther Newton notes in Mother Camp, those drag queens would laugh at “situations that to me were horrifying or tragic” as a mode of survival. And The Perfection certainly offers enough morbid laughter to sustain you for the foreseeable future.