Here’s a little gem for you: The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a thoroughly creepy horror movie that has slid by largely unnoticed this spring. It originally played festivals in 2015 under the less evocative title February, and then sat on the shelf while the director wrote and completed a second film (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, on Netflix). But now it has arrived as The Blackcoat’s Daughter and it is the best horror movie I’ve seen since The Witch, a film with which it has a lot in common (including a distributor, A24, which has, in a few short years, demonstrated rather impeccable taste). Like The Witch, Blackcoat is less about jump scares and slasher-thrills than it is atmospherics and a slowly consuming sense of dread. This is a moody film, a slow-burning nightmare in which you’re trapped, helpless to stop the terrible events as they unfold.
Blackcoat is something of a rondelet, with two characters sharing a storyline and one intercutting, but what’s not clear is how they’re all related. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton, Sing Street) are students at a Catholic girls’ school, Bramford, and have been left alone on campus on the eve of winter break. Rose engineers her solitude so she can see her townie boyfriend, but Kat is convinced something terrible has happened to her parents. In fact, the film opens with Kat and a shadowy figure coming upon a car wrecked in a snowbank, so her fear is not entirely unfounded as her nightmare lingers in her consciousness.
The third storyline belongs to Joan (Emma Roberts), who seems to have escaped from an institution. She’s picked up at a bus station by Bill (That Guy character actor James Remar), who, along with his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), is making an annual pilgrimage to lay flowers at the site of their daughter’s murder nine years earlier. Joan grows more and more withdrawn the longer she travels with Bill and Linda.
Whatever is going on with Joan is not clear, and brief flashbacks don’t really clarify anything, either, but it is obvious something bad is going on with Kat, and as a result Rose gets more and more strung out the longer they spend isolated at school. The joy of Blackcoat is watching how it all comes together, and how that slow-building tension snaps in act three. The pacing is slow but your patience is DEFINITELY rewarded.
Written and directed by Oz Perkins—son of Anthony—Blackcoat uses a classic, tawdry slasher set up—the all girls’ school—but Perkins turns expectations around by focusing on the emptiness and quietude of the abandoned school buildings (aided by chilly, borderline clinical lensing from cinematographer Julie Kirwood). Rose’s nerves and Kat’s odd behavior might just be the result of the circumstances, as the school is cold and unwelcoming, and Kat, particularly, feels abandoned by the parents that never came to pick her up. And Joan’s separate trip through the New England countryside is littered with classic movie-violence locales: Bus stop, diner, motel. Perkins lets decades of horror movies build expectations he subverts—the motel, especially, comes with a heap of loaded meta, given his family connection to Psycho, which a winky shower-shot acknowledges.
The way the story jumps between the three characters, often repeating scenes from different perspectives, requires some focus. Blackcoat isn’t the kind of movie you can half-assedly watch while surfing the internet. And you want to give it your full attention anyway, to fully marinate in Perkins’ careful construction of tension. Aided by an unsettling, wiry score from his brother, Elvis Perkins, and the way that Perkins lets conversations trail off and uncomfortable silences linger, The Blackcoat’s Daughter layers on the dread until it’s almost physically challenging to keep watching as shadows grow ever more oppressive and the school ever less welcoming. Something wicked this way comes, indeed.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is in limited theaters, and available to rent on demand.
Here is the cast at AOL Build last month.