At a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York, the student body is preparing for break, none moreso than Kat (Kiernan Shipka), who has taken to crossing out days on the calendar leading up to her parents’ arrival. But Kat’s parents never come, leaving her stuck at school for the break with only a couple of chaperones and an older student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), who has deliberately planned to stay put because she has recently learned that she is pregnant and wants to inform her boyfriend before having to break the news to mom and dad. Rose’s decision to stay on campus leads to her being tasked to look after Kat, who has a haunted air about her. Rose attempts to frighten Kat into submission by telling her a tall tale about the school’s nuns moonlighting as devil worshippers, yet it’s Rose who gets spooked when she finds that Kat not only sleepwalks, but is prone to unnatural bodily movement. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated (initially) tangent, a troubled young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) is picked up at a bus station by a kindly motorist (James Remar) and his less welcoming wife (Lauren Holly).
The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the directorial debut of Oz Perkins (son of Anthony), is very deliberately paced. One could even call it languid. There’s a great deal of dead air in the film, to mixed effect. The film also functions somewhere around the boundary separating dream logic from hard reality, where it often doesn’t make a lot of sense while never traversing fully into the realm of the surreal. It’s very difficult to get your bearings at times, since not only does Perkins fracture the timeline, but there’s also the matter of the resemblance between Roberts and Shipka (not unintentional, it turns out) occasionally making it tough to discern not only which story we’re following, but which character.
But the film is often a triumph of mood and tone, two essential weapons in horror. Perkins crafts a sense of foreboding throughout, where it feels like something dreadful is always about two seconds away from happening, even when it frequently doesn’t. The film is often disorienting—sometimes by design, sometimes frustratingly—but it does keep you largely in its thrall. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a film poised on the thin line separating boring from spellbinding. It’s never entirely one or the other, but some curious blend of the two.
Though the film does position itself as a demonic-possession entry (right down to a climactic exorcism), it doesn’t fully commit to the conceit. In fact, the satanic element almost feels grafted onto a more purely psychological thriller (the less said about the demon’s resemblance owing a lot to Where the Wild Things Are, the better). The film that The Blackcoat’s Daughter most strongly evokes is Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria, also concerning young girls at a prestigious school beset by violent occult chicanery. Because the film is so thoroughly drawn out, that does lend power to the moments when it does burst forth with shocking violence. When the film gets nasty, it has a real impact, but you can be forgiven if your mind wanders during the miasma of latency that so often defines it.
The cast is quite good, particularly Shipka, who exudes an unnerving aura from her first frame. Roberts also goes to some places that feel like fresh territory for her (I’m discounting Scream 4 as a precursor, since it wasn’t really effective at anything). There’s a lot of nothingness in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but the moments of something that do present themselves are impressive. Perkins has not made a horror classic, but he has made an impression. That’s not nothing.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.