The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Knock Twice (2017)

I’m not sure it’s always necessary for a horror film to justify the surface pleasures of its scares & thrills by linking them to a dramatic metaphor. However, it can be frustrating when one comes close to achieving that dynamic without fully following through. The recent British ghost story Don’t Knock Twice enters into the modern tradition of horror flicks with clear metaphors specifically centering on the anxieties of motherhood: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, most of XX, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The frustrating thing is that it nearly succeeds in joining those incredible ranks with an entirely​ new angle on motherhood terror its peers had not yet represented, but falls just short of hitting that target. Ultimately, its demonic scares & familial drama hang separately in the spooky air, never joining forces to drive home its significance as an individual work. That kind if strength in metaphor is not entirely necessary for a modern horror film to feel worthwhile, but without it Don’t Knock Twice struggles to feel substantial in any memorable way.

The always welcome Katee Sackhoff (Oculus, Battlestar Galactica) stars as an American sculptor and recovering drug addict who struggles to reconnect with her teenage daughter (Sing Street‘s Lucy “Riddle of the Model” Boynton) who she gave up for adoption in the British foster system. The daughter is reluctant for obvious reasons to welcome her mother, now essentially a stranger, back into her life, but finds herself in dire need of shelter from a supernatural threat. She & a fellow teen disturb a small, haunted shack near an interstate overpass where a witch’s ghost was rumored to live, knocking on the door twice (hence the title) after being told there would be urban legend-style consequences. The legend turns out to be exactly true and the teen girl finds herself haunted by a demonic witch that follows her from home to home to avenge the transgression. The monster itself (an aged, lanky, inhuman variation on the little girl from The Ring) and the film’s flashy over the top camera work make for plenty of effectively creepy moments: the witch climbing out of a kitchen sink, s ghost slitting its own throat, an Unfriended-style murder witnessed on Skype. The question of what the monster represents and how its terror communicates with the ex-addict mother’s suddenly possessive love for her estranged daughter, however, is much less effective.

There’s a distinct, nightmarish terror in this film’s teen victim being told that her parent, who has hurt her before, is now completely rehabilitated & worthy of trusting forgiveness. The vulnerability of welcoming that parent back into her life and not having her reservations for that forgiveness being taken seriously is not unlike being haunted by a literal ghost from the past that no one but she believes exists. If the demonic witch ghost that causes havoc in the film is supposed to somehow represent the mother’s past as an addict, however, Don’t Knock Twice doesn’t do much to help the metaphor along. A couple major plot twists that bring in murder mystery dynamics outside that central mother-daughter relationship suggest a mixed metaphor where the ghost also represents some kind of abusive evil in the foster system or, more likely yet, represents nothing specific at all. It’s not at all fair to burden Don’t Knock Twice with the expectation of a strong metaphor to support the presence of its demon witch antagonist, but the film comes too close to saying something freshly insightful about parental anxiety & the cycles of addiction not often depicted in horror cinema for the frustration in the shortcomings of its metaphorical potential to be ignored. When that aspect of its story doesn’t land, there’s not much left of its familial drama to hold onto and the film ultimately plays like a more visually striking version of mainstream horror titles like Lights Out & The Darkness. There’s nothing especially wrong with that distinction, but Don’t Knock Twice comes very close to being much greater than that limited ambition suggests.

-Brandon Ledet