Contrary to the spirit of this column, a true cinematic experience should be had in the theater. It is only there where sound and the sheer scope of the screen itself have the power to engulf your senses and hopefully, bring you towards a new way of seeing. Most films today use editing and spectacle as a source of distraction that are platform-neutral, even going so far as sometimes stripping away film mainstays such as deep space so they look slick on a phone. Rare is the film that can cast a hypnotic spell regardless of how it’s viewed.
Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a return to the kind of immersive cinema that creates a mood that forces the viewer to accept dream logic. It casts an eerie tug that makes the world around you seem a little strange after your screen has gone dark. The film is clearly personal, however, I won’t speak about the life of the director (do your research after watching the film). While it can inform a reading, that minimizes the powerful effect of the work itself.
Our story begins at an upstate New York Catholic school, Bramford, on a February (the original title of the film) snow-covered campus. We don’t visit the inside of the school, but are dropped in a dream; a bold move which both sets the tone for the film and gives us the clearest glimpse of what’s happening beneath the surface of Kat (Kiernan Shipka). If you’re familiar with her work in Mad Men as Sally, you know that despite her age the character was able to project a complex, broken inner world. She mines this ability to great effect and pushes beyond.
After asking about where her parents are, Kat is guided by the hand by a figure in a black coat towards a crushed, blood-smeared heap of a car. The striking image is marked by simplicity, and this is what gives the dream/premonition its veracity. The scene raises more questions than it answers and this technique, much like a dream, is what provides the narrative thrust.
School is dismissed for the break, and Kat and senior Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left behind. Their parents are no-shows. With Rose, this is an act of engineering, as she is attempting to tie up loose ends about a possible pregnancy. With Kat, this is something more. The principal puts Kat in Rose’s charge until her parents arrive, and as can be expected, she’s less than thrilled. Parental abandonment and trauma are the central themes of the film and provide the void filled by both the horror and violence.
A deserted Catholic school is the perfect setting as the film uses the threat (and ultimately appearance) of the Devil as its most visible monster. Rose attempts to scare Lucy to ward off her snooping with a story about how the nuns are practicing Satanism in the church. Little does she know, until it’s too late, that like most great scary stories, there’s a kernel of truth.
This is not a monster completely viewable and externalized. Rather, we see his cloven fingerprints in the behavior of the girls. We watch Rose prepare for a date with a leather-jacket-clad older boy. We watch Kat drift down eerie, empty hallways. Their behavior is blank and mechanical and shot in long takes creating a truly hypnotic effect. This is a film about behavior. It harkens back to Roman Polanski’s brilliant minimal horror film, Repulsion in one of film’s most memorable screen performances by Catherine Deneuve. The viewer isn’t allowed to peek at our subject, we are forced to stare at small behaviors, and the length of our viewing skewers our perception of time.
We then meet our third corner of our triangle, Joan (a nuanced and dark performance by Emma Roberts), a young woman clearly marked by a troubled past. She rips off a hospital I.D. bracelet in a dirty bathroom. We see flashes of aggressive orderlies in white coats. These are sudden memories that only offer glimpses of a past, pieces that don’t seem to fit together until they do with great effect. Much like a therapist, Perkins trusts his viewer to make connections and provides just enough information. He unspools and guides rather than tells.
In one sequence marked by the type of understated storytelling the film relies upon, Joan has learned a secret that transforms her entire drive. We see her hiding in a kitchen restaurant while a Good Samaritan, who gave her a ride (played with potential menace by James Remar), talks amiably with a police officer. Her eyes are drawn to a dirty plate upon which sits a steak knife. We match dissolve to Kat straightening a spoon on a napkin flanked around a table by Rose and two nuns. She takes one extra beat, making sure it’s just so. Is this a time lapse? Is this parallel action? We simply have to wait until it all comes together.
The incongruity of the imagery and the process of information coalescing from parallel narratives to form something new and whole is comparable to the work of David Lynch in well, almost everything. The effect is absolutely confusing at times and that is the point. You have to both do the work and let it happen. Specifically, this film plays most like Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive.
One of the true stars of the film is Elvis Perkins’ haunting score. It is inseparable from the tone of the film. Marked by minimal dissonance, it is a nearly unrecognizable leap from his heart-wrenching, folk-inflected indie rock, and a score that functions as a narrator just off frame harshly whispering in your ear. Much like the characters in the film it’s not just layered, it’s textural.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is driven by minimalism, a reduction of elements that creates something beguiling, creepy, and elegant. While it flirts with demonic-horror mainstays from the 1970s, such as The Exorcist (even offering a homage or two of its most indelible images), it leans more towards 1960s European art-house. Some viewers might fault the pace as it is a slow burn or its narrative clarity, but these are very specific directorial choices that are incredibly effective. If you’ve grown tired of the jump scare or the gross-out as the core elements of horror, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the kind of sophisticated horror film that lingers in the mind.