By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton
Written and directed by Osgood Perkins
Today’s theatrical/VOD release of THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER has been a long time coming, as it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival under the title FEBRUARY nearly two years ago. As it turns out, its emergence fully rewards one’s patience—just as the movie itself does, with its deliberate, chilly buildup to a genuinely frightening final act.
A remarkable directorial debut by actor-turned-screenwriter Osgood Perkins, THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER is a sort of stealth horror film. What it’s really about, incorporating one of the genre’s classic subject matters, is deliberately left vague for much of the running time, with the focus instead on three young women in various forms of trouble. At Bramford, a Catholic girls’ boarding school in a remote, snowy climate, all the students save two are leaving for winter break. One is freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka), who seems to have been abandoned by her parents, and has troubling dreams about what might have happened to them. Senior Rose (Lucy Boynton) claims her own folks got the pick-up day wrong (a circumstance she’s likely making up), and doesn’t appreciate being instructed by the school headmaster to look after Kat. She’s got other things on her mind: She thinks she might be pregnant by her local boyfriend.
Perkins intercuts those two with Joan (Emma Roberts), who’s traveling toward Bramford and appears to have escaped from either a medical or mental hospital. Her specific circumstances aren’t quite clear, and from the beginning, Perkins suffuses THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER in an ominous mood that gives you the feeling something’s not quite right, beyond his heroines’ prosaic problems. Shooting at a partially shuttered agricultural college in Ottawa, Canada, Perkins (who discusses the production here) and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood bathe their images in a grey, chilly palette that suggests all kinds of frightening possibilities lurking on the narrative margins.
As the unforced but inexorable tension builds, Perkins drops hints and clues about the true nature of THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER’s horrors: Rose’s claims of what a couple of elderly nuns, also staying behind, are really up to here, a photo of a dead girl there. Early on, Joan is given a ride by a middle-aged couple played by James Remar and Lauren Holly, whose odd demeanor—not to mention Remar’s track record in sinister roles—have you wondering what their true intentions are toward their new passenger. Perkins keeps you guessing but also plays fair, so that when the revelations and connections are revealed in the last act, there are no plausibility issues to distract you from being bone-deep scared.
No doubt his background before the camera assisted Perkins in drawing out the excellent performances by his three leads. Roberts reveals depth well beyond what’s been required of her in the likes of TV’s SCREAM QUEENS, and Boynton (recently seen in DON’T KNOCK TWICE and Perkins’ subsequent feature I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE) navigates Rose’s course from mean girl to frightened girl with great sympathy. Best of all is Shipka, previously known as Jon Hamm’s daughter on MAD MEN, who has the most extreme arc and carries off the full spectrum with compelling focus and skill. As both an actor’s director and a genre auteur, Perkins has done his late father Anthony proud (his brother Elvis also deserves kudos for the film’s supremely eerie music), and THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER establishes him as a very welcome addition to the horror family.