Hard to believe, but I'm writing about horror again, for the fourth blog post in a row. Horror seems to always be in vogue this time of year. Why? Perhaps it's an antidote to all the sweetness of the holiday season. Or maybe it's that chilling stories seem so perfect in the frosty months of winter. No matter, there is a lot of horror out there right now, and it's some of the most sublime we've seen in such a run in some time.
For five and a half years, I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner online, writing film reviews for the Examiner until it shuttered last spring. And after seeing so many entries in the genre, it became my cause celebre to highlight that horror is always better when it spends more time drawing out dread rather than throwing around buckets of blood. The fear that something bad could happen is always more palpable, especially because it can take its time. Comparatively, death usually comes quite fast in film. THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER understands the power of dread, and serves it up deliciously throughout its entire 93 minutes.
There is blood and death in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, but its true terror lies in the time it takes for such events to occur. And the film is so calm in its waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. There are no fake scares, or stray boisterous noises to make the audience jump. Instead, this film is really very quiet, subtly playing with us like a cat toying with a mouse in its grasp.
And palpable, exquisite dread is there from the very start of the film, as the setting is identified as an all-girl Catholic school in the dead of winter. The behemoth is presented as a stark, cold, dark, and isolated 'haunted house.' The students are clearing out for winter's break, and its emptiness is chilling. This horror film doesn't attempt to create a normal world that will soon be compromised by evil. Instead, it showcases a setting that is already eerie, and the proceedings in it will soon dial it all up to a heightened level of terror.
Doing so helps set up every shot in the place to be dripping with a sense of dread. Nothing can be taken at face value when the place already gives you the creeps. In fact, THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER instills its setting, not to mention its dialogue and action, with an innate sense of danger, foreboding and yes, dread. You’ll feel on edge just watching the establishing shot of each new location!
|Keirnan Shipka in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.|
Not only is the school creepy, but frankly, so are the two students at the core of the story. They are a couple of girls who are stuck overnight in the school and its housing, unable to get away on break due to miscommunication with their parents on what day to pick them up. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a 15-year-old freshman who’s naïve and needy, and Rose (Lucy Boynton), is a smug and mean upperclassman who has just found out she’s pregnant from her teen boyfriend Rick (Peter J. Gray). Rose told her parents to come a day later so she could hash out plans on how to deal with her unwanted pregnancy with her beau. The delay in Kat's parents is more of a mystery, as is she.
Played by Kiernan Shipka, Kat is a beautiful but morose girl who can’t help but give off a bit of a Wednesday Addams vibe. Shipka always conveyed a similar dark sensibility in her portrayal of Sally Draper on MAD MEN, and here again, the 17-year-old actress conveys trouble lurking beneath the surface of teen indifference. When she finds out that her mentor Father Brien will miss her recital the day before the school break, it could be sadness washing over her face or perhaps it's more like bitter disappointment. And is that gullibility we see in her eyes when Rose glibly lies to her about all the female faculty members being devil worshipers, or is it a sly sense of irony as Kat seems to sense something more within the creepy corridors?
|Lucy Boynton in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.|
Speaking of ol’ Beelzebub, the demon does show up in a hallucinatory sort of way, but is it real or is it all in Kat’s head? One of the delights of the movie is that it doesn't tell us too much too soon. Instead, the film takes its time, spooling out its dread bit by bit, scene by scene. As the girls wait, the school turns into a vast, horror house, creaking with ominous echoes, endless shadows, and whistling winds. While the girls are waiting, we too are waiting, and the tension turns killer.
A good 30 minutes into the story, a new character and storyline shows up, seemingly disconnected from the two girls. At first the appearance of Joan (Emma Roberts), a recent escapee from a mental ward, seems to suggest she will be the villain of the piece, someone who's being brought in to raise the stakes. But then her story takes up a great deal of screen time and seems perfectly content to resist dovetailing into the other narrative. Soon, the underdressed Joan is being picked up by a kindly, good Samaritan sort named Bill. He's played by James Remar who sometimes is heroic onscreen, and other times villainous. Here, he seems to be in DEXTER dad mode, as he kindly offers to drive her where she needs to go. It just so happens it's the same town where the school is, and that's where Bill and his cranky wife Linda are headed. She's played by an almost unrecognizable Lauren Holly, about a million miles away from the kind and bubbly ingenue from the 90's PICKET FENCES and DUMB AND DUMBER.
|Emma Roberts in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.|
Even such secondary characters seem chock full of the possibility of being evil. Who is this couple? Why was Joan in that mental ward? Is Bill a child predator? Will they all run headlong into whatever atrocities are going on in that school? The film sets up a lot of shoes to drop and draws out the tension with relish until something has to give and an explosion is imminent.
The filmmaker creating such exquisite thrills and chills here is writer/director Oz Perkins. He used to appear onscreen, making notable appearances as a character actor in the likes of films such as LEGALLY BLONDE and SECRETARY, but now he’s behind the scenes demonstrating a wonderful sense of the macabre in this, his feature debut. Perkins also happens to be the son of the late, great Anthony Perkins and indeed he’s learned how to essay chills in remaining calm, just like his father did as he played Norman Bates, the greatest baddie in the history of horror, in the Hitchcock classic PSYCHO back in 1960.
|Filmmaker Oz Perkins.|
The elder Perkins instilled every moment of his performance with an eccentricity that suggested something was a little off-kilter in Norman. The world may have seen him as an aging momma's boy but Perkins' tics and quirks subtly laid the groundwork for the bizarre split personality that would be revealed in the final reel. And Perkins played it with a disquieting eeriness. Even his smallest and seemingly inconsequential actions displayed subtle menace. Take the way Norman nibbled nervously on that candy corn in the motel's office. It was more than just a 'tell' of Norman's guilt, it was a way that the actor foreshadowed his 'devouring' of those who crossed his path. Perkins's son invests the characters he’s written in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER with similar 'tells' and warnings, and his thoughtful investment in them and the genre makes his film truly stellar. I think it's one that critics and fans will revisit again and again over the years.
Oz Perkins devilishly infuses his film with a lot of details that one could easily miss too, but they cleverly foreshadow upcoming events. For example, why do Kat and Joan have hairstyles with such similar dark roots? And whose name was on that ID which Joan swiped? Is it just a coincidence that the couple trekking into town has a story about their daughter at the school? Oh, and did you notice that scar on Joan's shoulder? Is it from a bullet hole? Hmm....
Knowing such details will not spoil a thing. This film is a mood piece really, where the journey is more important than a plot slavishly connecting all the dots. This movie understands that horror doesn’t always need a big “A-ha!” moment or a labyrinth of a mystery to figure out to keep us involved. Instead, Perkins and his expert colleagues understand that things that go bump in the night are made tangible by the noise of such bumps and the darkness of such nights. This frightener might not be as socially relevant as GET OUT or RAW were, what with their respective commentaries about racism and sexism. It may not be as metaphorical as PERSONAL SHOPPER with its layered character study of a young woman suffocating from her aimless job and despair. Nonetheless, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER stands on its own unique merits, particularly its flair for creating an overwhelming sense of dread like few other films have from first frame to last, and thus it shrewdly takes its place as the fourth in a series of superb genre pieces out this season. Horror usually doesn't get it this good in a year, let alone just three months into 2017.