Written and Directed by: Osgood Perkins
Starring: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, and Lucy Boynton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You know about the sisters, don't you? They worship the devil."
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a film that’s most obviously preoccupied with death, as so many horror films (including director Oz Perkins’s own follow-up) are; however, it’s also a film that’s specifically about the cold, gaping void that trails in its wake. Death looms throughout, haunting every frame, yet it’s that unsettling sense of emptiness that lingers: this is a film that unfolds amidst the hollow corridors of an abandoned boarding school situated in a desolate, snowbound landscape. More than that, it’s a film where vacant souls search for meaning amongst the ruins of the forsaken and the damned: it’s something of a ghost story, albeit an unconventional one that slowly comes into focus. Spirits haunt the living, though not in a way you might expect, lingering on but unable to fill all the emptiness that’s been left behind.
Among the living is 15-year-old Katherine (Kiernan Shipka), a lonely freshman at Bramford Academy who dreams that her parents have perished in a car accident. Upon waking up, she marks off a calendar counting down to the day when they’re supposed to arrive to pick her up for a February break. Her wait becomes disconcerting once the day arrives and they don’t show up, leaving her stranded alongside Rose (Lucy Boynton), a troubled senior coming to grips with her pregnancy.
Together, they’ll spend a long night that becomes more disquieting by the minute: it begins with the senior passing down a campfire tale regarding the supposedly Satanic headmistresses and ends with the poor, vulnerable freshman—who is sure her parents are dead—taking the story to heart. Meanwhile, miles away, another troubled girl named Joan (Emma Roberts) is fleeing from her own mysterious trauma. After stumbling into a bus station, she’s picked up by a couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) headed to lay flowers upon their slain daughter’s grave, completely unaware that they’ll soon intersect with a larger tragedy unfolding around them.
The intertwining trauma creates a sort of double helix structure that allows Perkins to forge a fresh take out of familiar material. The Blackcoat’s Daughter recalls bits of Suspiria, House of the Devil, and even, eventually, The Exorcist. And yet, it’s very much its own thing, thanks in large part to an offbeat narrative that unfolds with a sinister intent. Calling its reveal a “twist” doesn’t quite pin it down, as Perkins doesn’t seem to be hiding anything; rather, it’s a development that unfolds in agonizing fashion. You know exactly where it’s going, and the growing awareness only adds to the haunting quality of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a film that ultimately echoes Carnival of Souls. Not only does Elvis Perkins’s score nod in that direction with its warbling organ, but one also gathers the sense that we’re watching damned souls float about, oblivious to their own sealed fates. Emptiness (if not outright nihilism) grows out of the realization that all of this trauma will engulf everyone, so all of these moments—a mundane stroll through the vacant school grounds, taking a school photo—carry a portent of doom.
A grim inevitability looms over every frame of The Blackcoat’s Daughter even before the reveal heightens it. Perkins’s approach is oppressively ominous, with even seemingly innocuous conversations taking on an unsettling tenor. The score buzzes away constantly, yet the film feels so quiet, as every moment to reverberates right under the audience’s skin. Words like “deliberate” and “measured” don’t quite do it justice: Perkins’s style allows for no wasted moment or motion. His camera accents the vast emptiness, particularly when it creeps through the bowels of Bramford, where mysterious wailing noises float up through the air vents. If The Blackcoat’s Daughter is unsettling before any overt spookiness occurs, then it’s positively eerie once Perkins begins to pepper in cryptic imagery that blossoms into a full on Satanic panic, complete with gruesome murders and occult rituals.
Perkins’s enormously talented cast admirably shoulders the ominous weight of the increasingly bleak narrative. Shipka is a revelation as Katherine, who can only be described as “seemingly innocent” for all of five minutes. An early conversation with one of the school’s priests feels innocuous, but grows strange as her eyes dart about the room and a wry smile creeps across her face. Rose’s ill-treatment of her marks her as a possible victim in whatever is set to unfold at Bramford, but that notion is slowly dispelled when Katherine’s behavior grows increasingly erratic. Not only is Shipka’s caginess subtle, but so too is her full-blown insanity: hers is a quiet psychosis marked by one of the most disturbingly unhinged faces in recent memory. Something despairing lurks behind her wide eyes: you can feel her longing to fill that void that’s quickly grown thanks to her parents’ death, and Rose’s twisted urban legend is just enough to crack open the door of an already fragile mind.
Likewise, Roberts operates on the same wounded, unhinged spectrum. Her Joan feels like even more of a husk than Katherine, all vacant-eyed and aimless wandering. Jolting flashbacks hint at the trauma that’s left her searching to fill the void in her own life, and a devious spark darts into her eyes once she’s realized the cosmic irony of her situation. Suddenly, she has purpose—even if that purpose deems those around her expendable. Roberts and Shipka’s synced performances are the twin pillars bolstering The Blackcoat’s Daughter: both give nuanced turns as suffering, desperate souls looking to reclaim some semblance of balance, however gruesome that quest may be.
Caught in the middle are Rose and the grieving parents that cross Joan’s path. The latter’s tragedy is obvious, as both can be described as barely functional. Remar puts on a brave face, yet admits himself his life hasn’t been the same since his child’s demise. His presence is the only one that comes close to qualifying as warm in an otherwise frigid, removed picture, and his overwhelming, human grief accentuates the utter tragedy. Both he and his wife are haunted by events that have only left this hollow ritual of leaving flowers at a grave. It can’t come close to compensating for their loss, which is most evident in Holly’s frostiness. She has nothing because this is a film that reinforces the utter desolation of destructive forces, supernatural and otherwise.
Ultimately, that’s all that endures in The Blackcoat’s Daughter: disappointment, longing, and loss. Even Rose, its most vibrant personality, a young girl who is introduced snapping a perfect, smiling photograph, is subjected to the void. She’s arguably the most haunting figure in the film, as she slowly becomes a distant, fleeting ghost before one of the film’s final shots re-contextualizes her initial appearance. You watch as that vibrancy slowly fades from her face and realize this is The Blackcoat’s Daughter in a nutshell: a film that has you slowly watch as life and light fades from these innocent faces. Perkins masterfully foregrounds the tragedy and refuses to let the schlock overwhelm the proceedings—you could imagine a lesser filmmaker struggling to do so with a film that features severed heads, demonic rituals, and a deranged girl whispering “Hail Satan.” In many cases, there’d be a tendency to call that sort of thing gnarly; here, it is entirely fucked up, as the haunting final shot lingers uncomfortably, forcing both a character and the audience to confront the utter nothingness that remains.
After just two features, Osgood Perkins has no doubt emerged as one of the genre’s most exciting and vital new voices. Given his lineage, it’s perhaps in his blood to mediate on the intersection between death and psychosis, but what’s most striking is his ability to instill a deep, guttural sense of dread in his audience. Both The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House linger long after their runtime has expire, trailing in your mind, heart, and guts like restless spirits that refuse to be vanquished. Fittingly, The Blackcoat’s Daughter involves a subdued exorcism shorn of the typical hysterics—this is a film that suggests the most haunting moments in life are the quiet, lonely ones that leave us to grapple with what has left us, be it angels or demons.
The Blackcoat's Daughter will be available via Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on May 30th courtesy of Lionsgate. Special features include a commentary with Perkins and a 7-minute making-of featurette.
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