The Blackcoat's Daughter (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

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Two girls - Kat and Rose - are stranded at their Catholic school while the rest of the students go home for their break.  As ominous events threaten to break the peaceful solitude of the school, a girl named Joan travels to the same school to fulfill a destiny she barely understands.  Oz Perkins wrote the screenplay for and directs The Blackcoat's Daughter, and stars Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, and Emma Roberts.

The Catholic church will never receive the retribution its earned through decades - if not centuries - of molestation, violence, and the flexed used to brush their crimes under the table.  If it does happen, it won't be in my lifetime, and it will likely only come when we've collectively decided religion has little place in our world.  I don't feel that's a good or bad thing, religion's done plenty good for some of my loved ones and I've also seen the scars left by those who were once deeply immersed in their faith.

The Blackcoat's Daughter is a film about those in the latter half, whose scars turn to strength and as the strength grows the potential for it to be misused also blossoms.  Writer / director Oz Perkins plants those seeds in the opening scene, a sequence so haunting it underscores the horror of the remaining hour and a half.  A black figure, taking up about 2/3 of the screen, looms over Kat (Kiernan Shipka).  She barely stirs as she wakes and whispers, " came early."  This won't be the first time a man comes early, nor the last time a blackened rigid figure towers over women, and the nuns of Kat's school stay as oblivious to the darkness growing in Kat as they do the man they've pledged their service to.

Perkins' careful control of tone results in some cold and ominous shots of innocuous events.

This is technically Perkins' debut film having been completed and screened for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015.  Because the film industry is finicky when it comes to whether horror is "in" or not (hint: it's always "in") The Blackcoat's Daughter sat on the shelves for two years before getting a limited release earlier this year.  Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins, who played arguably the most famous mama's boy in cinematic history Norman Bates.  What's less known is that Anthony went on to direct sequels to Psycho, none matching the power of Hitchcock's original, but showed Anthony had an understanding of horror in front of and behind the camera.

Perkins, and this is to his credit, is not his father.  The Blackcoat's Daughter doesn't screech with its kills and burns slowly with an Elvis Perkins musical score that's so moody that when the kills come its a relief.  As I write that, I'm reminded of how many consider Christianity and its various practices a death cult wishing for the annihilation of all to prove what they know to be true.  There is some truth in The Blackcoat's Daughter but there's nothing that would ease the concerns of religious practitioners.

The Blackcoat's Daughter turns waiting into a tense exercise.  I love the way Perkins and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood build anticipation for an unseen arrival through their use of empty space.  Moments with Kat, especially, are framed with an empty chair taking up much of the screen, or reducing her to a smaller figure at a seemingly large table only to grow large as she's both empowered by and waiting for the arrival of her parents.  Rose's (Lucy Boynton) perspective is filmed in an interesting way, letting the hazy stories of devil worshiping and hairless nuns turn authority figures into indistinct blurs while Kat's perspective can only see darkness.

Even as someone who's watched six seasons of Mad Men, Shipka shocked me with her command of horror in The Blackcoat's Daughter.  There's one late point where Perkins' firm grasp on the tone slips into near camp, but thanks to Shipka's hypnotic approach to menace she rights the scene in time for distorted voices of a long-absent authority figure to issue commands to her willing subject.  Shipka has a preternatural grasp of quiet horror, letting her normally stoic face settle into the subtlest of grins before whispering with barely contained desire at how good Rose smells.  Boynton isn't as memorable, or as commanding, as Shipka but I enjoyed her straightforward approach to Rose and her pregnancy with lines focusing on her pleasure like, "He was doing it to me, and I was liking it."

Kiernan Shipka slays as Kat, going from wallflower discomfort to devilish menace with ease.

Which brings me to Joan, played by Emma Roberts, with emotional detachment similar to some who suffer from PTSD.  Joan seems connected to Kat and Perkins makes the wise decision to make those connections ominous rather than overt.  Think of the dark figure hovering over Kat at the beginning when Bill (James Remar) visits Joan's room under the guise of making sure she's okay.  He's but one of many men in The Blackcoat's Daughter who take intruding into women's space as a duty to decide what's best for them.  This becomes terrifyingly clear in a scene with Kat and a priest, where the absence of parental authority or any kind of protection give the priest an opportunity to rob Kat of the only consistent force in her life.

The Blackcoat's Daughter is almost mannered to a fault with a construction so tight the dramatic bits threaten to derail it entirely.  But with Shipka's performance as the anchor, Perkins is able to explore the omnipresent sexual menace of a religious sect that made it a priority to keep their sins concealed.  Perkins made a damn good film his first time out, and I'm curious where his careful control of tone will lead him next.

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The Blackcoat's Daughter (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Oz Perkins.
Starring Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, and Emma Roberts.

Posted by Andrew

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