Oz Perkins’s debut feature I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House displayed an impressive command of an ambient art horror tone, but bottled it up in such a stubborn sense of stasis that it felt wasted on a story that didn’t deserve it. His follow-up (paradoxically completed before Pretty Thing and since left floating in a distribution limbo) is just as tonally unnerving as that quiet nightmare of a debut, but applies it to a much more satisfying end. Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.
Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) & Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, Don’t Knock Twice) star as two Catholic boarding school students left stranded for their one week winter break when their parents fail to show and collect them. One girl is dealing with the complications of a secret teenage romance while the other just feels painfully alone. Left in an empty school with only snow & prayers to fill their days, their dual sense of loneliness begins to feel violently oppressive. Meanwhile a third girl, played by Emma Roberts (Nerve), escapes from a mental hospital and hitchhikes her way towards the school, establishing a sense of mystery about exactly how her story will merge with theirs and how the three girls’ loneliness will manifest into a real world evil. Evil is both physical & metaphysical in the film, as it is in most Catholic setting horrors, but the way it will choose to present itself is obscured until its presence is inescapable.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows a fractured, non-linear structure that teases the possibility of a puzzle that isn’t meant to be solved. Flashbacks of priests, hospitals, boiler rooms, and cops wielding rifles are filtered through multiple unreliable POVs, paradoxical timelines, and unexplained occultist rituals that strongly suggest the film will ultimately be a Lynchian puzzlebox, a question without an answer. Suddenly, without emphasis, its story does become very clear and relatively simple as the cloud of mystery lifts. Notes of classic horror milestones like Halloween & The Exorcist emerge from the film’s deceptively loose, mysterious tone, bringing it to the mix of high art aesthetic & low genre film familiarity I love so much. What starts as an art film meditation on loneliness gradually reveals itself to be a much more familiar mode of violent horror filmmaking, a genre exercise masquerading as a complex mind puzzle. I love it for that.
In some ways The Blackcoat’s Daughter is just as languid as I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, but it sets in motion so many more moving pieces and is a lot more willing to deliver the violence implied by its horrific tone. Personally, I should probably be giving Perkins’s command of tone much more attention as an audience than I am already. Both of his features are hinged on a roaring, ambient soundtrack (crafted by his brother Elvis Perkins) that would probably be better experienced through headphones, or at least on a more expensive sound system than the one I have at home. If you’re curious about his work or just have an appetite for ambient horror in general, I highly recommend starting with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and giving it the full alone late at night with headphones treatment. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but I’m going to have to revisit it for that immersive soundscape experience myself.