The Blackcoat’s Daughter. 2016. Directed & Written by Oz Perkins.
Starring Emma Roberts, Lucy Boynton, Kiernan Shipka, Lauren Holly, James Remar, Peter J. Gray, Emma Holzer, Jodi Larratt, & Douglas Kidd.
Paris Film/Travelling Picture Show Company/Unbroken Pictures.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Between this and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, director-writer Oz Perkins (son of the great Anthony Perkins) has had a couple great years. He’s proving to be a master of the slow burn. Some might not be keen on that type of horror. Myself, and plenty others, find it fascinating; when done correctly.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also renamed as February throughout its drawn out release) is a compelling, almost hypnotic fever dream. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it hinges on a big twist, a grand reveal. However, Perkins does tell his story through a curious lens, one that kept me thrilled to the last beat. Part of the way through the pieces start coming together and when they do the climax hits like kick in the teeth, bringing us towards a tragic and violent end.
Not everyone will find the film their cup of tea; no film’s going to touch on everything, it’s impossible. If you’re a fan of those slow burn horror efforts, Perkins offers nothing but the best. The central performances, specifically Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka, are totally engaging, and honestly if you can’t give them that then you’re not being honest. Above all, the style of the film, its gradually revealed plot, the score, they’ll haul you into this world and haunt you, too.
The film moves in what feels like an erratic fashion, jumping between the three main young women in the story – Joan (Roberts), Rose (Boynton), and Kat (Shipka). For a little while I actually felt the screenplay wasn’t coming out smooth, then after several scenes things came together and made clear the story was non-linear. Once you settle into the plot and its progression, the film gets even more interesting; the vagary of its elements become clearer and clearer.
What I dig most is the sparse dialogue and the sense of subtlety throughout. It’s a quiet film until the madness of the last half hour. Even then it’s gentle, in a way. A genuinely unsettling atmosphere is provided through gorgeously captured, dark cinematography making the boarding school particularly, the main location of the film, feel ominous at every turn. Kudos to cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, who also worked on Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and also on Bryan Bertino’s spectacular little flick The Monster last year.
Something which gives presence to the eerie darkness of the film is also the score. Beautifully strange music. Certain parts sound like a theremin, off playing in the distance somewhere. Other times an echoing, grating sound of strings, and so much more. The score altogether, every piece, fits where it sits. Just great stuff that takes the sombre mood and tone of the film to another level.
Perkins could’ve told this story through a straightforward presentation of scenes, moving through all the expected moves one anticipates in a film such as this one. Again, I don’t necessarily feel that the ‘reveal’ of the plot is a twist, or that it’s meant as a huge surprise. But the slow burn leading up to it makes that revelation exciting, in a darkly enticing manner. Perkins writes well without exposition, telling his story through imagery, which in turn makes the whole thing more captivating as we move through its murky mysteries.
He does a fine bit of work as director. The quick shots of a strangulation. Then a gunshot in the darkness. A view of Joan’s bullet scar. Blood on a door frame. Kat sees Rose in the corner, as an evil entity rises up nearby. All these things are so finite, brief, all vague and unnerving respectively. Specifically I love when we’re introduced to Joan. As we figure her out, the flashes of her memory are pure storytelling without the need for words.
And this is, once more, part of why the revealing moments of the story hold their weight. Because even if you’re not actually surprised by the – for lack of a better word at this point – twist, at this point there’s an anticipation built up that has you expecting something fierce. Does Perkins ever deliver. Tension snaps, then art and nastiness collide. Believe it or not, Perkins opts to show very little in comparison to what he could have shown for the sake of gruesome horror. The relatively tame nature of the final 20-25 minutes is what makes it such a gruelling experience. Then all those cryptic memories of Joan, her odd giggle in the bathroom, the scar, Kat and Rose’s situation at the boarding school, everything tangles up into a vicious burst of blood and terror.
This is absolutely one of the best horrors I saw from 2016. Perkins is a talented director and storyteller, his writing is the sort which draws me in, keeping me glued. Not everyone likes that slow burn aesthetic. I do. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is expertly written, and through that comes its gorgeous, devilish imagery to tell the story on its own. There’s no substitute for great artistry, Perkins has it in spades.
You can’t talk about this movie without mentioning the massive talents of Roberts and Shipka. They’re both utterly fabulous, gliding through the material with what looks of ease. They make their characters feel real, which isn’t only necessary it is wholly disturbing. The story comes down hard on the audience not only because of the writing, but because these two young women make Joan and Kat come off the page with terrifying results.
I keep telling people about this one because it deserves to be seen, it deserves to be studied in terms of its visuals and learned from for those who write and want to tell a story without only resorting to dialogue; this aspect I love and can’t stress enough. So many people want this type of horror, then when they get it they don’t know what to do with it. Not saying everybody has to love it. Just try and let the images and the flow of the film take over, listen to the sparsely placed words carefully. I hope that maybe you’ll get even a fraction of the same enjoyment I did, and will continue to as I watch it over and over again, relishing in its horrific glory.