Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boyton, Emma Roberts, James Remar, Lauren Holly
Director: Oz Perkins
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Oz Perkins shows genuine talent for tingling the spine with The Blackcoat's Daughter, another entry in the growing trend of "slow-burn" arthouse horror pictures which prizes the aesthetic pleasure of stillness over amped-up shock tactics. In that sense, the film echoes David Robert Mitchell's It Follows and David Egger's The Witch in that it's more concerned with texture and mood than narrative coherency or standard scares. Familiar plotting regarding Satanic presences and thinly sketched characters are more or less avenues for Perkins to play with off-kilter sound design, askew camera angles, and the use of disquieting silence in order to ratchet up a sense of menace. To that end, the film is ultimately hamstrung by it's overly portentous atmosphere, purposefully stilted performances, and attempts at David Lynch-style surrealism. It's almost as if Perkins is so confident in his ability to conjure an unnerving mood from what may happen that when things finally do happen, whatever intrigue had been gaining momentum is sucked out of the room like a hovering phantom. Getting to that point, though, is where the film works best.
Early on, we are introduced to Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a young student at an all-girls boarding school who spends most of her time in a near catatonic state. Eventually, she fixates on an older student named Rose (Lucy Boynton), who flaunts her independence by applying eye shadow and riding off in cars with boys. Beyond her stoic demeanor and creepy half-smile, there are also dark inclinations in Kat's past involving estranged parents, but things really get weird once Rose glimpses her in the school's furnace room bowing down to some unseen force, flames illuminating the small space like an occult seance. There's also a third character, Joan (Emma Roberts), an 18-year-old runaway who joins up with a traveling couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who take to the introverted girl in small part because she reminds them of their deceased daughter.
In it's grim determination to mine dread out of nothing, The Blackcoat's Daughter is reminiscent of the works of Denis Villeneuve; particularly Enemy, the Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger mind-fuck which placed the heavy lifting on maintaining a portentous vibe at the service of a thin story. Perkins is clever enough to realize that the most effective horror films emphasize the creeping sensation that something sinister is lurking just out of frame, and his use of minimalist compositions and slow panning shots across the Gothic corridors of the girls school is impressive from a technical standpoint. However, like Enemy, The Blackcoat's Daughter uses its human characters as props to be shuffled around within a fractured narrative. Shipka, Boynton, and Roberts all give effectively muted performances, but there isn't much here in the way of psychological depth or emotional nuance. While the arch line deliveries and stoic glances are initially intriguing, they become laughably single-minded as the running time wears on.
The film as a whole is also single-minded; tonally modulating between hushed silence and atonal sound cues before dovetailing into grisly violence in the third act. This plunge into sadism is expected (this is a horror picture, after all), and clearly, Perkins has done his familial duty by watching Psycho more than once, but the effect of the violence is numbing rather than shocking because there is no connection emotionally to the characters. There are only so many Mulholland Drive-esque scenes where characters speak in purposefully stilted tones or stare blankly at walls while the camera slowly pushes in before the effect verges on silliness. The idea of something inexplicably evil looming nearby is an admirable starting point, but The Blackcoat's Daughter takes this notion as its dominate driving force, leaving us with an artfully contrived vision of terror rather than true terror itself.