A24 continues its consistent run of quality, low-key horror films with The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Oz Perkins’ unsettling, hypnotizing movie is a slow burn collage of countless other horror films, only it isn’t here to tell a recycled story; it uses familiarity as a means of misdirection.
The majority of the runtime, we are wound tight with dread, pulled in by the threatening score, kept intentionally off balance, always curious to the point of madness as the parallel stories unfold. The first involves Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka, Sally Draper from Mad Men), two boarding school teens whose parents mysteriously never made it to the school pick them up for winter break. With no real options, the headmaster leaves the two girls at the school under the thumb of two weird ass, curiously dressed nurses. At least I think they’re the nurses.
The second story is Joan’s, played by Emma Roberts. Joan is a drifter at a bus stop, one who catches the eye of Bill (James Remar), a good samaritan with a less enthused wife (Lauren Holly) along for the ride. Bill gives Joan a ride, and almost for the duration of the film, motives in this car remain muddled. Perkins’ direction never shows his hand too early, sometimes not at all. The ambiguity of people’s demeanor and motivation in both stories create an uneasy disorientation.
Things start happening, phones in hallways ring. Things go bump in the night. And I don’t want to spoil any part of the film so let’s leave the plot description here.
As these two storylines converge, The Blackcoat’s Daughter pivots between a dozen familiar tones and settings. Remnants of boarding school slasher films, the supernatural, haunted house films, and any number of atmospheric thrillers echo here, but they’re all used to keep us off balance while we put the puzzle together. The year isn’t given, but it definitely feels like we’re in the mid 90s; fitting that the film then reminds me of a young David Fincher. Perkins and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood use wide lenses and set shots where some young filmmakers would eagerly employ the handheld or shaky cam; it’s an aesthetically pleasing descent into madness.
Roberts does what Roberts does best, plays introverted and “troubled” as well as anyone her age. And Lucy Boynton is terrific at times as Rose. But it’s Shipka’s work as Kat that stands apart. In her limited screen time on Mad Men, Shipka proved the more mature angles of the show weren’t too big for her. Here, she pushes forward with that nervous energy and cold gaze she perfected as the put upon daughter in the show. She handles a challenging part with a sort of seasoned confidence rare in young actresses.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter isn’t without a few missteps. Characters have to make a few of those horror-movie decisions – investigating a noise, being too trustworthy, etc. – and even though part of the brilliance of the film is its ambiguity, it’s perhaps too open ended for its own good. The ends are just a little loose. But these are minor quibbles with a film that is another terrific genre entry from A24, the studio who brought us The Witch, Ex Machina, and Green Room (and pretty much everything else they do except Tusk).