(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.