Oz Perkins delivers a creepy and contemplative debut with The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a horror film with familiar devices used in unexpected ways to establish its tone. Instead of pulse rushing thrills or stock jump scares, Perkins’s film is a melting glacier of encroaching dread, a slow build that denies catharsis. While the payoff isn’t completely satisfying, it does leave a lasting impact on the mind if not the nervous system.
There is a thick layer of gauzy black atmosphere over Daughter’s Catholic girls school: two semester break holdovers, the solitary Katherine (Kiernan Shipka) and the wayward Rose (Lucy Boynton), face a growing malevolent force on the dark hallways of their dormitory. Meanwhile, psych ward escapee Joan (Emma Roberts) hitchhikes home with an overly welcoming, if unharmonious married couple.
The stories converge predictably, but the fallout in the final moments is the film at its most thematically original. Daughter’s heaviest burden is the twist within Joan’s portion, a sidestep for the sake of a surprise that lacks payoff and has a logic gap or two. Some unnecessary misdirections feel like a cheat from its otherwise straightforward gloom.
The film is most successful as a mood piece and an unlabored sustaining of tone. Even if longer scenes become lugubrious without much dialogue and an already clear trajectory, its Perkins’s icy control that never relents. Imagine the kind of nightmare that gives only vague glimpses of a bogeyman, but its the feeling of inescapability and coming calamity that terrifies you. Even when the thrills come, Perkins’s eye is detached, making the audience feel all the more helpless. It steers dangerously close to disengaging the audience (and occasionally doesn’t work as a plotting device), but that patience is what makes the Daughter distinct.
But the spaces between hair-raising moments do allow for some insight on the expectations placed on young women. There’s an amount of performance, a presentation required of these women to appear proper, pious, sane. As Katherine becomes more haunted, it’s less that she’s adopting new traits than it is she is shedding something. Shipka’s work is chilling in its minutiae, measured when the film plays her heavy.
Visually distinct with its encroaching darkness and and patient, morphing static imagery, cinematographer Julie Kirkwood makes these simple shots charged within a narrow color palette. A blend of precise sound design and seeping score help to highlight Perkins’s deliberateness while remaining within his understated framework.
While The Blackcoat’s Daughter fleetingly frustrates with its plotting and pacing, its chills slowly grab a very strong hold.