With the oft-delayed release of Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter bowing stateside on DirectTV, domestic audiences are finally able to behold a major new voice in horror cinema. Son of famous actor Anthony Perkins, who will forever be remembered as Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Osgood (“Oz”) has crafted a very unique possession film as his debut, a slow-burner steeped in gothic traditions that doesn’t so much redefine the genre as become a perfect illustration of it. In a time of instant gratification, short attention spans, and constant stimulus, it is refreshing when a filmmaker comes along who isn’t afraid to buck trends, and remind us all of the endless pleasures derived from teasing out a story drenched in an atmosphere of pervasive dread, with characters inching closer each minute to their unavoidable fates, holding his audience hostage in the grip of inexorable fear, and refusing to cater to preconditioned notions of canned horror that are all too common these days. The Blackcoat’s Daughter makes an early, powerful claim to horror film of the year, and it is something that should not be missed.
It’s winter break at Bramford, an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York, and two students, Kat and Rose, become stranded there when their parents fail to show up at the appointed time. For Rose this is purposeful, as she gave her parents the incorrect date, so that she could have some extra time to deal with a sudden, unwanted pregnancy and break the news to her boyfriend. For Kat, however, this is unexpected, and an early nightmare she has of a crashed automobile suggests that nobody is coming for her ever. In a deliberate, ominous scene, which quickly becomes the film’s trademark ambience, the two girls are advised to stay behind at the closed school until their parents arrive, while being looked after by two remaining nuns. What follows is a very studied, almost Shining-esque, and terrifying unfolding of events featuring stilted, bizarrely paced conversations between Kat and Rose, who becomes increasingly unnerved by the former’s strange behavior, drawing ever closer to the Bramford School through late night walks down its halls, and into the furnace room, where director Perkins has unfailingly staged a living nightmare for both girls.
Breaking up this descent into madness, the film cuts away to a young woman named Joan, played by Emma Roberts in the best performance of her career so far, attempting to hitchhike to Bramford for an unexplained reason. She is picked up by a very sympathetic man (James Remar), and his wife (Lauren Holly) who are also traveling to Bramford for their own very specific reasons. By paralleling these two storylines, Perkins sets up their ultimate, expected collision, and avoids the pitfalls of many modern horror films that rely on endless scenes of characters walking down desolate, dark hallways, magnets for jump scares. At every turn The Blackcoat’s Daughter feels like it is inching towards oblivion, subtley revealing new horrors back at Bramford, while befuddling audiences as to Joan’s true purpose. The film becomes increasingly unsettling the closer she gets to her destination, and the more opportunities Perkins takes to open up the husband and wife character, through extended dialogue sequences where they share with her a past tragedy and elicit great sympathy.
It’s best to go into The Blackcoat’s Daughter completely cold, and I’ve probably already said too much. Be warned that the film journeys into unspeakable horror, and refuses to pull its punches. The final reveal proves to be an organic extension of accumulating events, and invites serious reflection on everything that came before it. This is not a film that you can walk away from unscathed, and most, if not all of that is due to the bracingly original style of director Perkins. Like the best examples of gothic horror in films that focus on a particular place, Perkins absolutely gives life to The Bramford School, whether though his deliberate tracking shots down its hallways, 360 degree pans, mysterious apparitions appearing in corners, still frame montages, or the psychological pull that characters cannot resist, drawing them ever closer. This is a place that survives generations and generations of students, and like the Overlook Hotel, or the Tanz Dance Academy, its mere existence can change a person. Most refreshing is the film’s sheer unpredictability, underscored by brief internal flash cuts, exposing memories triggered by proximity to the school, expanding the narrative’s reach while keeping the audience guessing.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter unfolds like a mesmerizing puzzle, begging you to sort it all out while defying you at every turn. Boasting an impressive sound design, and a dissonant score by Elvis Perkins that calls attention to itself during otherwise quiet scenes, the film recalls some of the best moments from the cinema of David Lynch, no doubt a huge influence on Perkins, but rather than graft elements of horror onto other genres, he is resolute in his desire to make quintessential, definitive horror, unlike any we’ve seen before. If you are keyed into its rhythms it should continually surprise and keep you on the edge of your seat. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is not only one of the best debut films from an emerging talent, it’s one of the best horror films ever made.
The Verdict: Rave