Director: Osgood Perkins
Writer: Osgood Perkins
Producer: Adrienne Biddle, Rob Paris, Bryan Bertino, Robert Menzies, Alphonse Ghossein
Stars: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Lauren Holly, James Remar
Parallel storylines connect a mourning couple’s mysterious hitchhiker with two students stranded at a boarding school haunted by whispers of devil worship.
NOTE: "The Blackcoat's Daughter" was previously titled "February."
Somewhere in her world or somewhere in her mind, something is not right with Kat. A student at the private Bramford boarding school, Kat is certain that misfortune has befallen her parents, which is why her headmaster is forced to let Kat stay in her dormitory when said parents are late collecting their daughter for semester break. Bad girl Rose has a similar situation with travel arrangements, inspiring the headmaster’s temporary solution of having Rose look after Kat. That task leads to Rose filling Kat’s already troubled thoughts with rumors of devil worship said to take place in secret somewhere within the building’s dark and dingy bowels.
Elsewhere, a quiet drifter by the name of Joan earns sympathy from a traveling stranger who offers to give the young woman a ride, much to his wife’s chagrin. No one knows it yet, but everyone is hiding a personal history with Bramford poised to pull both plots together at the campus in question, and in a frightfully ghoulish manner.
With some shockingly grisly gore and sinister silhouettes of a shaggy horned creature, “The Blackcoat's Daughter” evokes the dark unholiness of a 1970s satanic thriller, except with 21st-century slow burn style. Admittedly lifting scenes wholesale from “The Shining” and clearly reminiscent of films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (review here), writer/director Osgood Perkins isn’t even attempting to hide the influences on his tone. Naming the school Bramford isn’t exactly understated, after all.
“The Blackcoat's Daughter” aims to be a cerebral experience of macabre mood. The camera is often frozen in place, playing a patience game with the drama that allows scenes to speak for themselves. Relying on exceptional sound for much of its atmosphere, the story moves forward with a dreamlike feeling of subtle slow-motion, often conveyed through silence expressed by actors working with body language more than with words.
Kiernan Shipka of “Mad Men” and “One & Two” (review here) is as exceptional as ever. Shipka is capable of conveying old soul eyes asking for sympathy as equally as she is able to smirk smugly in a manner morphing Kat from reserved good girl to the kind of kid frustrated parents wish they could slap without consequence.
Once swirled into its style, “The Blackcoat's Daughter” is darkly entrancing. See through that style however, and the fiction doesn’t stand all the way up. The film has a twist of sorts, though it seems so evident from the outset that it doesn’t appear wholeheartedly intended to be a real revelation. That’s not the effect this film is after.
Were its scenes arranged chronologically, shrugged shoulders of “so what?” might be a common reaction. Yet “The Blackcoat's Daughter” is presented in nonlinear fragments, similar to the storytelling of “Pulp Fiction,” and that approach of using the medium as expressive art gives the film its edge as an interpretive study accentuating nuance over narrative.
In a post-screening Q&A at Beyond Fest 2015, Perkins described “The Blackcoat's Daughter” as a personal project about the circular nature of grief, loss, and fashioning time into a place or space that can be explored. It was insight that elevated my perspective of his film as more than an interesting effort of style able to brand an impression despite being light on literal substance.
But barring a personal Perkins appearance at every public screening or home viewing of the film, most audiences won’t benefit from his illumination on how to relate to “The Blackcoat's Daughter” as something with intent beyond commercial entertainment. The impression one comes away with is thus dependent on a decision to view the film though a telescope of what it delivers or under a microscope of what it might mean.
Particularly in genre cinema, much is occasionally made about how festival circuit scuttlebutt seemingly skews perception of a buzzed-about movie. Fought-over films regularly cycle through popular debate after each Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, et al, e.g. “The Babadook” (review here) or “It Follows” (review here), where for every drooling bite of boisterous praise comes a nay-saying accusation of drinking from hype-spiked Flavor-Aid.
Following its regional premieres at TIFF and Fantastic Fest in Fall 2015, “The Blackcoat's Daughter” tossed its horned cap in the ring as next in a line of horror world polarizers to achieve such love it or hate it status. Various write-ups concluded there was no middle ground of split opinion to be had on the film, a claim I counter as being simply untrue.
Going in blind is usually the optimal way to approach any film. In the instance of “The Blackcoat's Daughter,” knowing the style that is in store goes a long way toward preparing expectations for the experience. That style delivers the kind of arty aesthetic that is mesmerizing for some while maddening for others, but you’re as likely to see the vision from both viewpoints as you are to stand firm on one side of its line.
Review Score: 65