THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER * * * 1 / 2
Starring Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Lauren Holly and James Remar. Written and directed by Osgood Perkins.
Back in our NYU days, my dear friend and colleague Jason Shawhan of the Nashville Scene came up with something called a movie’s “PSOD Quotient.” Like most college memories this one’s a little fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure it was inspired by David Fincher’s Alien 3, as PSOD stands for Pervasive Sense Of Dread. The term came to mind a lot during The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a clammy, discomfiting debut from writer-director Osgood Perkins. This thing’s PSOD Quotient is off the charts.
Pointedly lacking jump-scares and jolts, the movie is instead something to stew in, its dark magic working your nerves while denying the catharsis of a good scream. In the opening moments, Kat (played by Mad Men’s amazing Kiernan Shipka) awakens from a disjointed nightmare in which her parents are killed in a highway accident. It’s the day before February break at her Catholic boarding school and now all the other girls’ families are here to pick them up… except hers are nowhere to be found. Despite fake smiles and strained reassurances from the faculty, Kat already seems to know they’re not coming.
Rose (Lucy Boynton) lied to her folks about when vacation starts so she could have another night with her townie boyfriend. Unfortunately the date’s agenda has changed somewhat now that Rose suspects she might be pregnant, but regardless she doesn’t need the aggravation of having to look after this little weirdo for what was supposed to be romantic evening out. (What the hell is Kat doing down there in the boiler room, anyway?) And so Perkins strands these two in a big, empty school for a long night dense with uneasy atmospherics, underpopulated hallways and an eerie string score composed by the filmmaker’s brother, Elvis.
Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles down the interstate, we’ve got Emma Roberts as a troubled hitchhiker who –judging from the medical wristband she’s trying to shed– recently found her way out of some sort of institution. She’s rescued by a couple of seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritans, with creepy character actor James Remar playing against type and Lauren Holly sulking in the passenger seat. There’s something uncomfortably “off” about these interactions, and the two storylines will eventually converge in ways both unexpected and upsetting.
Writer-director Osgood Perkins’ father Anthony was Norman Bates himself, so I guess he’s got a genetic leg up when it comes to scaring the crap out of audiences. But what fascinates about The Blackcoat’s Daughter are the ways in which it breaks from traditional horror tropes, following a fragmented dream logic instead of the expected expository mythology. For example, I have no idea what the title even means (the film was called February when it played the Toronto Film Festival) and Perkins remains brazenly unspecific with regard to demonic possession or re-possession, as it were. For these reasons there are plenty of folks I know who hate, hate, hate this movie — but it’s not about a plot, it’s more like a vibe.
What sticks with you is Shipka’s sinister stare – a worst-case Sally Draper with a fear of abandonment and a yen for the occult. Then there are those hushed, snowbound school settings and stark, underlit corridors. A late-movie closeup of Roberts is one of the more effective pieces of screen acting I’ve seen lately, and all throughout it’s just so dreadfully, distressingly goddamn quiet. In the end, what lingers most about The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a sunken feeling in the pit of your stomach that everything is *not* going to be okay.