Mark Reviews Movies

The Blackcoat's Daughter


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Osgood Perkins

Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, James Remar, Lauren Holly

MPAA Rating: R (for brutal bloody violence and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 3/31/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 30, 2017

The Blackcoat's Daughter is a film about possession and bloody murder, set in a mostly empty Catholic boarding school in an isolated area in upstate New York. The location alone, as anyone who has spent any time in a quiet and vacant Catholic establishment knows, makes it a horror film. It's the kind of place where every moan from a central heating unit sounds like a whisper and where every creak sounds like someone—or something—sneaking up on you from the shadows.

The religious aspect is important, obviously, since the plot hinges on some demonic presence, but in his debut feature (being released after his sophomore effort), writer/director Osgood Perkins mostly avoids the clichés of such a story. Yes, it features such gross sights as a young woman vomiting for no apparent reason, and yes, there's a scene of an exorcism being performed. The more important point, though, is how the influence of that demonic figure comes about.

That's because this is really a film about loneliness and loss. The horror of the first act is in the atmosphere of the place, as well as the mounting dread of what's to come. The horror of the second act is in its sudden and grisly violence, which, though taking place within a short period of actual time, is spread out in Perkins' screenplay, on account of a narrative that switches perspectives between three characters at two different periods of time.

The story's conclusion, though, brings the film's themes back to the beginning—of being alone in a world that seems to want little or nothing to do with you. The film's ultimate horror is in complete isolation and of wanting things to return to some sense of normalcy, only to realize that it's not possible. What makes it horrifying is Perkins' drastic re-definition of normalcy in this story, filtered through everything that has come before the end.

Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a resident and student at the Catholic school, where she's a loner. It's the week of the start of a break from classes, and Kat awakens on the day her parents are supposed to pick her up from a nightmare involving her father, her mother, and a wrecked car. It's also the day of the school's student recital. Her parents don't arrive for the concert, which means Kat is going to have to spend a few days more at the school.

Joining her will be Rose (Lucy Boynton), whose parents are also no-shows, although she has arranged it that way. She fears that she's pregnant, and she wants the extra time to discuss the matter with her boyfriend. Even though Kat wants the company, Rose only sees Kat as a way to cover for her when she sneaks out at night.

Meanwhile, at a bus station in the area, the mysterious Joan (Emma Roberts) is alone and without a ride. A helpful man named Bill (James Remar) offers to drive the young woman to her destination. His wife Linda (Lauren Holly) is unenthusiastic about the arrangement. The couple has arrived in the area to mark a tragic anniversary.

There isn't much in the way of actual story, especially since Perkins is frugal in revealing the connections between the apparent stranger at the bus station and the girls at the school. What matters is the timing of how and when significant plot details are revealed. In particular, there's a detail about one character, which comes at the film's midway point, that offers context as to when Joan's hitchhiking excursion is taking place. It also puts another character's story into a different perspective—one that's layered with dramatic irony, since we have a general idea of her fate, although not the specifics.

Perkins' primary aim with the film is creating a mood of disquiet and uncertainty. His screenplay does its part, as it moves back and forth between these characters and time, showing us the same events from different points of view and with our knowledge of what has happened, what is happening to another character at the same time, and what's to come.

More important, though, is the setting itself. Much of the action—such as it is—takes place in the school's dormitory, with lengthy hallways and doors that suggest the unknown. The film's sound design offers the usual creaks and groans from unseen things, although there's a distinct personality to them—the sense that there's something sentient behind them. It's an undeniably eerie locale, especially a boiler room where only the light of the burning furnace offers minimal illumination. The only respite from the dorm's dark corners and nerve-wracking soundscape is the brightly lit residence of the students' matronly wards. The peace, tranquility, and pre-meal prayerfulness doesn't last there.

This is a sneaky film. For most of its length, it seems to be hitting a single note—of creating an air of anxiety from what could happen. Perkins is adept at that, but the sneakiness doesn't reveal itself until the very end, when we realize that, all the while, The Blackcoat's Daughter has been hitting a different note, too. The other is simply a distraction of sorts. It's not the dread that matters. It's the stifling loneliness—the isolation of these characters and the extent to which one character is willing to go to remedy it. The end result is a dark, unnerving harmony of the unseen monsters and the ones we can make of ourselves.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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