The concept of possession with regard to a supernatural versus an organic origin has been explored in many films. The Blackcoat's Daughter, director Oz Perkins's debut feature, manipulates these opposing notions by creating an aura of glacial oppression around a trio of female leads across different story lines, with the connection between resulting in a terrifying minimalist effort that gruesomely defies expectations.
As the temperature continues to drop around a lonely boarding school, secrets reveal themselves as a disturbing relationship plays out in shadowed hallways and a bereft couple picks up a mysterious passenger as they converge on the school. The deceptive setup appears straightforward, but Perkins builds an atmosphere of dread around these characters that continues to build and yet never implodes or over indulges. There are no jump scares and the viewer will intrinsically know when something bad is about to happen, and this knowledge will not liberate from fear, a direct result of the patient and masterful direction at hand.
Julie Kirkwood's crisp cinematography if filled with tenebrous imagery and rigid compositions. Silhouettes are used to nefarious ends, with subdued lighting and deep shots of the school's interior create a chilling web that draws the viewer in with its disquieting ambiance. Zed Starkovich's score is a glacial dirge, sprinkling melancholic shards into the stagnant air that haunts each frame. Even in moments of intense fear, the score never overcompensates, staying in line with the restraint of Perkins's vision.
Kiernan Shipka stars as Kat, a lonely freshman whose isolation may or may not be an invitation for something sinister. This is a remarkable performance, gently balancing on the shoulders of other iconic characters in similar predicaments and gracefully making it something unique. Her ability to communicate infatuation and soul crushing loss is profoundly disturbing and exactly what this film requires. She is supported by Lucy Boynton who plays a senior tasked with chaperoning Kat during an icy weekend. Considering the bravura of Shipka's turn, Boynton does an admirable job at playing the every man. Her reactions of terror, relief, and curiosity are beyond natural, pulling above typical horror expectations by speaking directly to the viewer's sensitivities. Emma Roberts rounds out the dubious trio and she does well with her limited time, with her blood curdling delivery of a stifled giggle being one of the film's many dark surprises.
Lauren Holly and character actor James Remar round out the cast as a married couple living in the aftermath of the unthinkable. Remar in particular has a standout scene that runs the gambit of parental desolation and it is both unexpectedly natural and a somber omen of the darkness to come. Every performance, from bizarre incantations in front of an ancient boiler to a sinister exploration of what it means to be accepted leads to an unforgettable climax which is punctuated by an outstanding finale. Regrettably, it is telegraphed early, but the final result and its unspeakable implications will stay with the viewer long after the entirety of the story is experienced in its full quasi-demonic glory.
Available exclusively on DirecTV on February 16th and in theaters on March 31st, The Blackcoat's Daughter is a wonderful indie horror gem, a perfect choice for A24's artistic portfolio. It took two years and a title change for this film to be picked up and given the proper treatment. It is clear that the partnership of Perkins's understated command and his extremely talented cast has found the right home. If you're looking for a slow paced shocker, filled with quiet nightmares and wounded, but vicious performances, you will not be disappointed.
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