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Friday, March 31, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER (2017)


THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER
(US/Canada - 2017)

Written and directed by Osgood Perkins. Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar, Lauren Holly, Greg Ellwand, Elena Krausz, Heather Tod Mitchell, Peter James Haworth, Emma Holzer. (R, 94 mins)

Filmed in early 2015 and screened at that year's Toronto Film Festival under its original title FEBRUARY, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER has been held up in distribution limbo by A24, who bounced it all over the release schedule from late 2015 and throughout 2016 before pushing it to spring 2017, where it's now bowed on VOD and received a limited theatrical run. While BLACKCOAT gathered dust on the shelf, debuting writer/director Osgood Perkins (son of legendary PSYCHO star Anthony) made another film, the Netflix Original slow-burner I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, which ended up being released first. PRETTY THING remains a love-hate proposition: moving at roughly the speed of plate tectonics, it's the absolute slowest of the crop of post-Ti West slow-burner fright flicks over the last several years, and while I appreciated what Perkins was going for, its almost experimental austerity set a land-speed record for going from intriguing to off-putting. Watching BLACKCOAT does enhance PRETTY THING to an extent, but what's odd is that though he made it first, BLACKCOAT feels like the kind of polished and assured sophomore effort of a young director who's gained significant confidence after getting the experience of a flawed debut under their belt. That's not to say PRETTY THING is a step back per se, but it's a step somewhere, a detour in an unexpected direction. There's enough similarities and thematic and stylistic overlap that the films could easily be examined as flip sides of the same coin, but it's PRETTY THING that, in retrospect, ends up coming across like the not-quite-there-yet test run for THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER. They're unquestionably the work of the same filmmaker but watching them in the order of release rather than the order they were produced actually seems like the more naturally progressive flow.





That doesn't mean THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER is a multiplex-ready commercial horror flick for the mainstream masses. It's only slight less slow-going than PRETTY THING, but with more characters and more story, so it doesn't have quite the "still life with narration" aura that's a natural byproduct of a movie with essentially two characters with one who's senile and pretty much catatonic. BLACKCOAT is also the most unsettling example of supernatural horror that the genre has offered since THE WITCH from a year ago, which could explain why shared distributor A24 might've wanted some distance between the two. Like PRETTY THING, BLACKCOAT's central characters are female and there are two stories (that element is more pronounced here) that eventually coalesce. At Bramford, an isolated Catholic girls school in upstate New York, the students are leaving for winter break at the end of February. Naive freshman Kat's (MAD MEN's Kiernan Shipka) parents are supposed to pick her up but are nowhere to be found. Older, cynical Rose (Lucy Boynton) deliberately told her parents to pick her up on the wrong day later in the week so she can deal with an unwanted pregnancy. They're the only two girls left at school, and headmaster Mr. Gordon (Peter James Haworth) tells them to stay out of trouble and check in with two prim, proper custodians, Ms. Prescott (Elena Krausz) and Ms. Drake (Heather Tod Mitchell) if they need anything, but otherwise, Rose is instructed to keep an eye on the younger Kat. Rose puts Kat through a bit of a hazing ritual, telling her a creepy fictional story of a girl who was killed on the school grounds when she discovered the Bramford nuns were part of a cult of devil worshipers. Rose sneaks out and spends the evening with her boyfriend but returns to find Kat trance-like in the basement, kneeling before the boiler, an event Kat writes off as sleepwalking.


In the first of what becomes a series of cutaways to a separate storyline, Joan (Emma Roberts) is a young woman who gets off a bus several towns away. She's wearing a hospital bracelet that she quickly removes. Seeing Joan walking along the road, kindly Bill (James Remar) and his cold, stand-offish wife Linda (Lauren Holly), pull over and offer her a ride. She tells them she's going to Portsmith, which is the town right after their destination--Bramford--where they're going to pick their daughter up at school for winter break. While Linda wants nothing to do with Joan, Bill tells her that they've been tested and they find God in the little things that happen--"the little coincidences"--and that she reminds him of someone he knew a long time ago. Meanwhile, back at Bramford, Kat believes her parents are dead and are never coming to get her. Her behavior grows increasingly erratic, with a concerned Rose asking if there's anything she can do. "No," Kat replies. "You had your chance."


It's hard to discuss THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER's story any further without spoiling it or divulging too much information about exactly how these two seemingly unrelated plot threads come together. Perkins cleverly misdirects you into thinking one thing, but it's all a distraction from what he's really setting up (it's the kind of film where you immediately want to watch it again to see how you were tricked and manipulated). Aside from one well-crafted jump scare where the staging has a striking similarity to the staircase murder of private eye Arbogast in PSYCHO (an affectionate nod to the filmmaker's father), Perkins is more concerned with establishing a mood, slowly and methodically tightening the screws and ratcheting up the tension with a lot of help from a persistently droning, rumbling, ambient score by his brother Elvis Perkins, whose haunting "Blackcoat's Daughter" lullaby will chill you and make your hair stand on end. All of this, in conjunction with the slow pace, makes the sense of dread and doom not just unsettling but downright suffocating. Joan, Kat, and Rose are extremely well-rounded and thoroughly fleshed-out characters whose arcs go in completely the opposite direction than you expect as you get to know them after their initial intros: mean girl Rose ends up being the most sympathetic, especially after completely underestimating Kat, who's not the naive innocent she seems. And Joan...well, you'll just have to see.


Perkins has constructed THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER in such a way that everything you think you know is up-ended with each shift from Kat & Rose back to Joan, Bill & Linda. Each revelation ends up altering your perspective on everything that happened in the early stages. There's some terrifying moments here and with rare exception, they're the kind that sneak up on you, unease turning to discomfort before escalating to anxiety and terror. THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER will rattle even the most jaded, seen-it-all horror fan (one character picking up a phone to hear a gurgling voice ordering "Kill all the cunts" is particularly unnerving). Like a lot of genre fans, I'm old enough and I've seen enough over the last 40 years that, aside from an occasional WITCH, BABADOOK, or IT FOLLOWS to cite just three recent examples, it's hard to be surprised in a big way by new horror films anymore. But when this got firing on all cylinders and the pieces began falling into place, it was really getting under my skin and by its emotional end, left me shaken in a way that I haven't experienced with a horror movie in a long time. Possibly the scariest film to take place at a girls school since Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER is that most welcome of surprises--a disturbing, stomach-in-knots fright flick that's quietly burrows its way into your head and will fuck you up for days after seeing it. Well done, Perkins. Your dad would be proud.


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