I’ll admit, The Blackcoat’s Daughter didn’t entirely click for me until the first on-screen murder. I was already won over by the movie’s incredible atmosphere, its ever present sense of dread lurking just out of shot, the impeccable use of sound, the way that every character felt just a bit off, and the uncanny mundanity of the setting. But it wasn’t until that first murder, a stabbing that cuts from a dutch angle of the killer holding the knife to a shot of the knife plunging into the victim’s back that I realized what it was all in service of.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a horror film with 1950’s/60’s sensibilities. There are call backs to The Exorcist, but its closer in tone and execution to something like The Haunting or Hitchcock’s horror films. The movie acts more as a tone piece, creating a sense that this isn’t a story where bad things are happening, but a world where horror is the natural state of things. From the first scene, we are never given the idea that things might turn out ok for our characters; they’re doomed from the start.
Those characters are Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka), two students at an Upstate New-York all girl’s Christian boarding school, both stuck on campus when their parents don’t arrive to take them away over winter break. The Headmaster tells Rose to look after Kat – a freshman – until their parents arrive, but Kat suspects that her parents are never going to come, and her certainty of her parents’ demise is only the beginning of her strange behavior. Meanwhile, another young woman (Emma Roberts) is picked up by a kindly older couple who offers to drive her to the same town that Rose and Lucy go to school in.
What the movie lacks in plot intricacies it more than makes up for in palpable dread. There is always a sense that something horrific is happening just off-screen, right in the characters’ blind spots, waiting to bring them harm. The dark and lonely halls of the empty school echo with maleficent a presence that makes itself known to the audience through a spine-shuddering soundtrack. There are points where it can feel like the music is doing all of the heavy-lifting here, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without a camera that fills the screen with exactly less than the perfect amount of detail to make the audience feel safe in their knowledge of their surroundings.
Kiernan Shipka plays an amazing creepy school-girl, and is able to nail the slight transformation from naïve rosy-nosed freshman to tubular, dead-eyed villain with changes to body-language that border on the unnoticeable. It really is a miracle of acting and/or makeup how subtle her transformation is, how easily she slips from weird to frightening. There’s a strained playfulness to her whole performance, and we get the impression that she really is just trying to belong somewhere, to someone through the entirety of the movie. That’s not to take anything away from any of Shipka’s co-stars, but she’s what pulls the whole thing together, and she makes the movie work.
Given how well he taps into the tone of the mid-century horror masters, it might be surprising to learn that this is director Osgood Perkin’s first movie; (Due to weird movie distribution stuff, his second film, I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, was released on Netflix last October). Your only real clue would be how small in scope The Blackcoat’s Daughter is, with only a handful of named characters, one major location, and a 90-minute runtime. While not really a detriment, the movie never manages to feel bigger than the sum of its parts, and because of that, its introduction of a larger force behind its story may fall a little flat for some people. More a lack of production design than anything else, the movie can’t quite reach Babadook levels of small horror that sticks with you. But, if you allow yourself to let it, The Blackcoat’s Daughter will have you either on the edge of your seat, or crossing your arms around your torso for some sense of safety, from title to credits.