Sheryl (2023)

Sheryl seen at Panic Fest 2024 

Writer/director Justin Best’s Sheryl opens to a close-shot, giallo-lit montage of a woman donning various layers of mask: carefully applied eye make-up, styled hair, coloured lipstick, painted and filed nails, an elegant dress, high heels, and finally an actual mask, all cut to the percussive female rap of Tinamina’s Dead To Me. The woman is Sheryl Benito (Anthea Neri-Best), and this impressionistic introduction compartmentalises her into a series of well-groomed parts, all being composed to show a painstaking, piecemeal pursuit of perfection. “I just think it’s important to look good at all times,” Sheryl will say – and that includes when she is out with her boyfriend Ted Wozkowski (Shaan Sharma) on one of his serial-killing sprees. 

As well as being a cold-blooded murderer, Ted is an asshole – something that no one but Sheryl seems to grasp – and yet it is her curse to seek approval from those, like Ted and her own mother, who will never give it, and who in fact dress down her every effort to meet their impossible standards of acceptable femininity. Accordingly Sheryl is a Frankenstein’s monster, reconstituted from the expectations of others, and adjusting her appearance so constantly that she has lost all sense of herself. Left rudderless and with even lower self-esteem than usual after being dumped by Ted, Sheryl comes up with a new idea for an article on ‘the perfect face’ (“J-Lo’s cheeks, ScarJo’s hair, Angelina’s lips”) for the beauty website where she works, prompting her no-nonsense editor Linda (Elsie Robertson) to ask, “Like some sort of Frankenface?”. Sheryl also starts privately putting this idea into practice, mutilating and murdering actresses, models and influencers to build from their severed parts a mask of perfection. 

“Would you rather face a chainsaw-wielding killer or a genetically mutant monster?” This is the question that Sheryly poses to her new boyfriend David Reyes (Christopher Cendana) during a flirtatious getting-to-know-you conversation in a bar. “Are all your questions horror-related?”, he asks, to which she responds, “I like what I like.” The film named after her also openly and unapologetically knows and likes horror. For it stitches together the best parts from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces (1982), John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Lucky McKee’s May (2002) to create its own queasy moral dilemmas surrounding patriarchal oppression, extreme self-actualisation and the ruthless exploitation of others. In the meantime, contradictory, complex Sheryl is all at once a victim of those who endlessly undermine her, a heroine who takes on her tormentors, and a villain leaving a bloody trail of collateral damage in her narcissistic wake – and caught between these rôles, she constantly risks coming apart at the seams. She may ultimately learn just to be herself, but that self proves to be a murderous mutant monster. 

David is the only man in Sheryl’s life who respects her for who she is and does not (at least at first) want her to change – but as these two, knowing nothing of one another’s backgrounds, accept each other at face value, David does not realise that Sheryl is a killer any more than she realises that he is the police detective who, along with his straight-talking partner Vasquez (Jade Ramirez), is investigating her outrages. As David gradually matches the heels left at a crime scene with his beloved, his conflicting sympathy and horror modulate our own. For this Cinderella of slaughter is simultaneously a feminist icon kicking against the pressures of a man’s world, and a grotesque construct pieced together from that very world, and to take her on her own terms, you have to be willing to embrace all of her – both the good and the bad – at once. 

Set in a hyperreal world filled with celebrities and psychokillers, Sheryl is big, brassy, bombastic satire, where sadistic murders are played for laughs, and where the inner turmoil of “a normal girl who’s always done what she’s told” is let out in a joyously unhinged rage. Best’s confident feature debut is fleet and funny to the very end, while still managing to raise serious, confronting questions about body image and the beauty myth.

strap: Justin Best’s psycho-satire tracks a woman’s struggle to pick up the pieces of who she is and wants to be under patriarchal pressures

© Anton Bitel