MOVIE REVIEW: The Blackcoat's Daughter
2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection
“THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER”-- 4 STARS
As a long-time school teacher now and going all the way back to my time as a student worker who stayed on his college campus over breaks during my undergrad years, I can vouch for the creepiness given to the educational backdrop of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” An empty school is eerie as f--k. Let me tell you.
Cavernous institutional hallways, stairwells, and other building nooks echo with revealed emptiness when they are normally teeming with busy-bodied people. Strip away the human population and a hidden soundscape of creaks, squeaks, clicks, clacks, pings, and bangs of a school’s aged bricks are now amplified. And that’s only the noises. Paint subtly hair-raising visuals on top of that and the atmosphere of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” only gets better. The feature directorial debut of actor Oz Perkins coyly squeezes this setting for all its worth in an engrossing and harrowing new thriller.
Previously titled "February," this story is set at an all-girls prep school in fictional Bramford, New York (nice nod to “Rosemary’s Baby” there). It is a February winter break and two students, Kat and Rose, are stuck on campus without rides home while everyone else leaves. The headmaster assigns the upperclassman Rose to keep the younger freshman Kat company for a few days while they await their respective parents.
Kat (Chicago-born and former “Mad Men” ensemble member Kiernan Shipka) is an awkward Bramford freshman. She’s an apathetic girl who is downright disturbed. The religious setting ain’t exactly taking with this one. Rose (Lucy Boynton of “Sing Street”) is a new student to Bramford with her own quiet fears and issues. This virtual babysitting cramps her style and, frankly, creeps her out.
Tangential to the two girls at school is Emma Roberts’s Joan, miles away across the state and possibly on the lam from a mental hospital. Scattered herself, she is dead-set on reaching Bramford and finds a married couple named Bill and Linda (James Remar and Lauren Holly) benevolent enough to give her a ride. In flashes of hurtful memories, Joan has seen things and is easily frightened.
You sense that something connects Joan and that feeling of mystery on both ends grabs your anxious curiosity the entire film, and smartly so. This is one horror movie where you won’t be throwing popcorn at the screen from preposterousness, nervous laughter, or cheesy theatrics. “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is a concoction of pure atmosphere cooked at a proper slow boil.
Perfect editing from Brian Ufberg merges Julie Kirkwood’s simple and overcast cinematography with the ominous echoes of shrill coming from the musical score of Elvis Perkins (the director’s brother, both of which are sons of late actor Anthony Perkins). This creative tone pushes away all gaudiness in favor of stern visuals and straight suspense, qualities that are welcome and greatly appreciated in contrast to its cheap genre knockoff peers that are overly dependent on jump scares.
All credit goes to Oz Perkins’s writing and direction. Certain scenes punch quickly and others to linger with menacing resonance, building outstanding tension over 93 minutes. His script leaves scant, selective, and intentionally obscure breadcrumbs. Not a stitch wasteful exposition exists, allowing and requiring the audience to make their own inferences.
Being “in the dark” is a savory place to be for a film like this. Keenly and decisively, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” carries a nearly strict reliance on suggestion and atmosphere over exploitation. For that, Perkins and company get it and do not need a “throwback” label to prove it. They know that our mental guessing is always more frightening than showing every little thing.
LESSON #1: SCHOOLS ARE IRRESPONSIBLE-- First of all, if not all of the live-in students have departed on a break during an extended school closing, additional supervision of some kind is needed to stay behind to properly monitor and guard the pupil daughters of paying customers. Second of all, cross the T’s and dot the I’s on facility maintenance protocols and records. There are a great deal of unlocked and open areas where students probably shouldn’t be able to go, especially on an empty campus. Get that furnace checked out too while you’re at it.
LESSON #2: WATCH OUT FOR THE QUIET ONES-- All three of the central females are deeply withdrawn in some way, shape, or form. Spoilers will keep me from going into details. Nevertheless, their quietness leads many to dismiss any assumptions that they might have issues or needs that necessitate formal or informal support and attention. You don’t have to vote either of them prom queen, but they need more people to genuinely interact with them and talk to them. Guidance like that can keep them from going astray.