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There is something about stillness that makes the best horror movies so effective, though so few truly use it as well as they should. It’s not so much the length of these shots but rather the weight of expectation, our brains seemingly now hard-wired by filmmaker’s typical use of fast cuts and hyper-movement to be almost addicted to it. Netflix’s recent I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House took this epic levels of slow burn that met with division and now we have The Blackcoat’s Daughter, by the same director, a film that similarly layers its macabre story with harrowing inertness that might not hit all the right marks but is a terrific chiller nonetheless.
It starts at a remote Catholic girl’s school on a particularly frigid winter day, the start of a break in study with parents coming in to pick up their daughters. Only two remain. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is new to the school, a timid, withdrawn girl who claims her guardians are late but will arrive soon, though she has a vision that is disturbing. Rose (Lucy Boynton) is a few years older, feigning illness, also says her parents simply forget and are on their way. The two are given permission to remain at the school to wait along with the nurse and school secretary.
Not far away, another girl named Joan (Emma Roberts) sits on a step in the freezing temperatures, seemingly on the run, perhaps on her way to the school. She is offered help by an older couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly), who are driving toward the same town, who themselves have a disquieting history that will weigh heavy soon. Meanwhile, both at the school and with this couple, a menacing dark presence is seen and felt throughout, a nebulous shadow in the corners, seeping horror slowly into the ticking minutes.
Written and directed by Oz Perkins, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is as much a mystery as it is a horror film, a moody atmospheric story that revels in its ambiguity, keeping the viewer in discomfort with odd angular camera angles and stretches of wordless actions. Employing many of the same methods he made so affecting in I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, including long disturbing unbroken shots of hallways, rooms, furniture and windows that create almost unbearable unease, he tips the scales in a different direction when it comes to violence, something he avoided entirely in his previous work. Here, the moments of staggering stillness are broken in the last act with jarring, unflinching acts of death, which depending on your appeal for it in the genre will be welcome or not. Either way, they are terrifying to watch.
There are big questions Perkins wants us to ask and the answers are not always easy to see. Themes emerge of abuse, religion, and sin of course. This isn’t a heavy-handed parable about faith per se, despite the presence of a figure that is surely designed to suggest otherwise, but rather a demand to consider more. Perkins isn’t afraid to set up what seems obvious, such as the apparent worship of something living in the school’s basement fire-burning furnace, the metaphor pretty on the nose, though why and for what reason are not so clear.
The film’s original title was February, which I think works better than the current, which paints a picture going in that nudges us toward an expected interpretation. February incites something bleaker, colder, more sinister and it’s too bad the change was made. Either way, the film itself is a chilling work, one that sustains its pace with great visuals (by Perkin’s regular cinematographer Julie Kirkwood) and a genuinely creepy score, though it shows its cards too early in a scene that builds to something that should have remained unseen but instead answers one pivotal questions that strips a bit of the mystery even if it asks another one at the end.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a smart, gripping thriller that proves Oz Perkins is still one to watch, his brilliant attention to detail and sense of dread taking his films far beyond the tropes of modern horror. With a more accessible story than his last, it nonetheless is still packed with challenge and a final shot that is devastating to watch, it’s victim a character racked by unbearable hollowness and desperation.
Movie description: The Blackcoat's Daughter is a 2017 horror film about two girls left behind at their boarding school over winter break who face a mysterious evil.
Director(s): Oz Perkins
Actor(s): Emma Roberts, Lucy Boynton, Kiernan Shipka
Genre: Thriller, Horror