In the opening minutes of The Blackcoat’s Daughter (formerly known as February), the screw-turning chiller debut of writer-director Osgood Perkins, a gaunt young girl named Kat (Kiernan Shipka) sits in the office of her Catholic boarding school’s headmaster. Cold light seeps in through two large windows behind him, both of them fogged up and delicately frosted by the snow-cloaked landscape outside the school’s walls. All that’s missing from the scene is the rolling mist of her exhaled breaths, and his; the slow-flowing wintertide, one infers, has already chilled them to the bone.
In ways both visual and narrative, the scene echoes early-on moments in two touchstones of the horror genre: The Shining, in all its creeping paranoia and strangely hypnotic architecture, and The Exorcist, especially given the school’s religious overtones and the demonic subversions its existence seems to almost invite. The movie that follows, an unnerving tale of Satanic seduction and mounting madness, makes it clear such callbacks are wholly intentional on Perkins’ part.
As one might expect given its inspirations – and one would be remiss not to also acknowledge the overarching influences of Rosemary’s Baby and, a little more subtly, Let the Right One In – The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a searing, suspenseful affair, more concerned with building a thick, ambient sense of dread than executing jump-out shocks. Its setting is a significant boon in that respect: an icy, forbidding prep school increasingly cut off from the rest of the world as most of its pupils depart for winter break and snow packs in around its edges. The fraught score, too – a bruising and often overpowering piece of work by Elvis Perkins, the filmmaker’s brother – accentuates an atmosphere that more often than not seems to be as much a character as any other.
It’s difficult to discuss the particulars of The Blackcoat’s Daughter without spoiling the narrative tricks and twists employed by Perkins in a largely successful, though sometimes confusing gamble to ratchet up the suspense. At the heart of the story are Kat and Rose (Lucy Boynton), two girls connected only in a potent sense of abandonment. Left behind at their frigid academy over winter break under the less-than-watchful eye of two adult chaperones, the teens seem resigned to waiting out the break until their mysteriously absent parents can drive up to collect them. It’s an unfortunate situation, but an endurable one: that is, until a dark force, something out of sight but almost palpable in every inch of the shadowy institution, begins to stalk Kat, whispering in her ear, promising the kind of companion a lonely, socially awkward young woman might crave. Rose, tasked with looking after the younger girl, has her own issues to contend with, ones consuming enough that it makes sense when some of Kat’s increasingly strange behavior is half-observed then disregarded.
Meanwhile, miles away, a troubled young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) recently released – or at least liberated – from a psych ward begins a fateful pilgrimage through the snow toward the school, encountering an older couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) whose collective decision to give her a ride eventually unearths unexpected, disturbing truths about both the impromptu hitchhiker and her benefactors.
Perkins conducts the proceedings with a clinical remove, taking great care to shoot scenes full of empty spaces and deep shadows that even visually are chilly enough to make one’s hairs stand on end. That commitment to mood pays off in major ways as the story escalates and eventually (though certainly a little too late) settles on a climax, with Kat’s dalliance with a mysterious, dark energy taking a brutal and psychologically unsettling turn for the worse.
For a first-time director, Perkins’ reliance on atmosphere speaks to a remarkable amount of visual and thematic intelligence, though it’s equally fair to note that his grip on story isn’t quite tight enough to carry the script (which he also wrote) through its ultimately too obvious final motions.
Luckily, the performances on display are roundly strong enough to make up for The Blackcoat’s Daughter‘s narrative shortcomings, with Shipka’s deeply entrenched, sometimes horrifically physical performance emerging as the most affecting of the bunch. Boynton, on the rise for some time now, is terrific in the role of a young woman just caught up in her own life enough to finally notice the danger she’s in only as it encircles her; and Roberts does eerie, compelling work as the film’s most unnervingly enigmatic figure. Brilliant, too, is Remar, a seasoned character actor who shares a charged and menacing scene in a hotel room with Roberts’ mysterious traveler containing, more clearly in hindsight than as it unfolds, some of the film’s most intrinsic beliefs about faith and temptation.
As the credits roll, with the film’s most profoundly upsetting moment saved for last, The Blackcoat’s Daughter feels like a slightly rushed and narratively overcomplicated envisioning of a rich horror concept: what if possession by supernatural forces could be seen by the possessed not as a parasitic occupation but a symbiotic relationship, one steeped in a power more addicting than enervating? That audiences will be left considering a new dimension to a tried-and-true horror trope long after the film as run its course is a tribute to the potency of The Blackcoat’s Daughter‘s sinister cinematic language – and an impressive victory for a young horror filmmaker on his way to bigger but hopefully just as brooding and baleful things.