The Blackcoat’s Daughter *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Oz Perkins.
Written by: Oz Perkins.
Starring: Kiernan Shipka (Kat), Emma Roberts (Joan), Lucy Boynton (Rose), Lauren Holly (Linda), James Remar (Bill), Emma Holzer (Lizzy), Peter J. Gray (Rick).
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow burn of a horror film – a film of simmering tension for most of its runtime, who hides its secrets in its non-linear structure for as long as it can. The director is Oz Perkins (son of horror legend Anthony), this is actually the first film he made, although through one of those quirks in distribution, it’s actually arriving months after his follow-up – I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – was released. I wasn’t much of a fan of that film – while I found the craft of it to be wonderful, I thought the storytelling was too vague and enigmatic – and ultimately didn’t add up to very much. While The Blackcoat’s Daughter also wants to build slowly, and enigmatically – I found myself transfixed by this film, in a way I wasn’t in Perkins’ follow-up. I cannot help but wonder if he like what he did here, and decided to push harder in his follow-up – if so, he pushed too far.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter tells the story of two teenage girls and one young woman– the teens clearly interlock, and the young woman, not so much. At an exclusive, all-girls Catholic boarding school, winter break is arriving, and the parents of all the students have shown up and taken their kids. All except for two that is. Rose (Lucy Boynton) says to the headmaster that she accidentally told her parents the wrong day – so they’ll be late, but it really wasn’t an accident – she had to see her boyfriend and tell him some news. Then there is Kat (Kiernan Shipka) whose relationship with her parents is harder to get a hold of – and the cryptic flashbacks to wrecked cars, and her strange conversation with a priest, don’t help to clear them up. They are stuck at this snowbound boarding school with a couple of nuns waiting for their parents. The other storyline involves Joan (Emma Roberts), a troubled young woman, perhaps just escaped from some sort of hospital, and clearly traumatized by something, who is stuck at a bus station with no money – before a kindly man, Bill (James Remar) offers her a ride – much to the chagrin of his wife (Lauren Holly). “You remind me of our daughter” he tells her.
I won’t spoilt what happens from there – but will say that Perkins clearly knows his horror movie tropes, and certainly isn’t above trying to exploit them. Much like his follow-up – which was a haunted house film – it almost seems like Perkins is letting old horror movie tropes do some of the storytelling for him, as he’s much more interested in creating atmosphere, then telling a story. And at creating atmosphere, he is wonderful, as this simmering horror movie really does get under your skin – aided by two great performances by Boynton and Shipka. If you saw Sing Street – that audience pleaser from last year – you remember Boynton as the girl the main character falls in love with, who ends up being a real person underneath. Here, she again has an effortless cool about her - although she’s so lost in her own, real world problems, she doesn’t sense what is going on right in front her. Shipka, best known for Mad Men, is even better – there is something off about her from the beginning, and Shipka intriguingly plays with that, without doing much. In much of her performance, she reminded me of Kristen Stewart – another actress capable of communicating a lot without doing much. In the end, the film does allow Shipka to cut loose a little, and she relishes that as well. By comparison, Emma Roberts is probably the weakest link of the three – but I think some of that is the role itself, which, even more so that Shipka, requires her to keep her cards close to her chest for a long time. James Remar, with his sensitive performance, pretty much steals that part of the film.
When I watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House last year, even though I didn’t love it, I did want to see what Perkins had up his sleeve the next time around. Watching what he did before that film, want to see that next film even more. Perhaps The Blackcoat’s Daughter is too heavily reliant on horror movie tropes, and Perkins could stand to pick up the pace just a little bit. If he does that, and adds it to his already impressive visual style, he’s going to make a truly great horror film. For now, the very good The Blackcoat’s Daughter, will do.