The Blackcoat's Daughter Movie Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Released by A24 Films and DirecTV
Written and directed by Oz Perkins
2015, 93 minutes, Rated R
Released theatrically and On Demand on March 31st, 2017
Emma Roberts as Joan
Lucy Boynton as Rose
Kiernan Shipka as Kat
Kat and Rose are students at a Catholic girls’ boarding school in a town called Bramford in New York State. That’s the end of the movie. It’s horrifying.
Ha ha. I made a funny. See, I went to a Catholic boy’s school. And while it wasn’t a boarding school, it was plenty horrifying. Not for the reasons you might expect, mind: mostly it was horrifying because the “faculty” were unbelievably inept. Freshman year our biology teacher tried to tell us to be careful when dissecting clams, and in demonstrating how to do it, immediately sliced her own finger nearly to the bone. Sophomore year our chemistry teacher showed up smelling of booze more often than not, and all I remember doing the whole year can be summed up thusly: 1) playing Tank Wars on ancient MS-DOS systems; 2) reading a newspaper article about shampoo; 3) watching Lorenzo’s Oil; and 4) watching Jurassic Park. It’s a miracle I survived, much less became the illustrious furious academic you all know and love.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter, thankfully, has more substance than all four years of my secondary education. Kat and Rose are troubled girls: their parents fail to pick them up at the start of some unspecified semester break, and, left alone at the school, Weird Stuff starts to happen. We learn that Rose may be pregnant (because purity/impurity are always themes in such stories, especially where Catholic school girls are concerned), and Kat may have been abandoned by her parents and, in a sense, adopted by something much worse. That’s not literally what happens, but it may as well be.
As Rose and Kat endure the cold, dark days together, Kat’s behavior gets weirder and weirder. Simultaneously, we’re introduced to another girl, Joan, who is picked up at a bus station by a kindly middle-aged man who just wants to help her. He checks her into a hotel room, buys her dinner, and promises to drive her to Portsmith, a town near Bramford. Joan’s behavior suggests she isn’t what she seems, and as the two narratives—Rose and Kat’s, on the one hand, and Joan’s on the other—move closer together, we begin to see infernal parallels. (In some ways the film demands a second viewing to fully appreciate the connection between the frame narrative and Joan’s seemingly extraneous story.) When Kat receives a strange phone call and hears a weird, unnatural voice telling her to kill, we know that something is rotten in the state of, er, New York. Just what is up is a pleasant surprise, not fully revealed until the final ten minutes or so, and handled deftly enough to earn extra credit.
In fact, Blackcoat’s Daughter deserves a ton of credit for squeezing so much out of so little. For a film dominated by two young and basically unknown actors, set mostly in the silent halls of a Catholic girls’ school, the film is stunningly atmospheric and weird. The unnamed school has a lot of Twin Peaks—and maybe just a tiny touch of Silent Hill—about it, and both of the young leads do a wonderful job in their roles as broken and hopeless young women in an environment famously hostile to all young women. (In fairness, though, the politics of the Catholic Church are almost entirely absent here, sidelined by the very intimate though nonetheless real evils facing the two main characters.)
The film is exceptionally slow, and the multiple narratives only exacerbate the snail-like pace of things. But the acting and atmosphere are so good that this is easily forgiven. Patient and observant genre fans will probably realize what’s happening very soon (much sooner than I did), but everything is done so subtly and with such attention to detail that the familiar themes and tropes are made fresh, interesting, and most importantly, scary again.
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