A female-only boarding school is the setting of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Covered, positively blanketed in snow, it’s isolated, the nights an unrelenting pitch black. Inside are two girls, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), both left behind during a February break, waiting for their parents. They wander through empty hallways, but the subtle noises — screeching creaks and low groans — betray the assumption that they’re alone here.
At the same time, Joan (Emma Roberts), a girl with a cloudy past, wanders through a cold, snowy landscape, eventually hitching a ride with an unnamed couple whose strained dynamic hints at trouble unspoken. They share uncomfortable car rides to a town a few miles away, the husband assuming a strangely paternal role for Joan.
Formerly titled February (hence, the movie poster, here), The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow, moody, and thoroughly unnerving walk through an almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. Osgood Perkins, son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, demonstrates great skill in developing the film’s occult atmosphere. His jagged camera angles and the dark, discordant music combine with subdued performances — naturalistic with a small degree of slowly simmering insanity underneath them — to create a creeping mood that seems perfectly tailored to the film’s narrative.
Some reviewers have criticized the film’s supposedly confusing non-linear editing. It’s true there are some aspects of the editing that don’t completely utilize the style’s strengths. A particular offense may be that important story elements seem too telegraphed, too obvious given the myriad of clues.
For the most part, though, the editing is an extension of the film’s atmosphere. Its bold confusion is one way for Perkins to summon unease, a way of keeping the audience constantly wondering, leaving scenes at the precise time when resolution is wanted, but not needed. It’s a constant game of tension building to an intense climax.
The film’s trio of young female actresses represent the best of what modern horror needs. Kiernan Shipka plays her role with an unsettling twist on the typical demure horror protagonist. Roberts, known for roles in Scream 4, Scream Queens, and American Horror Story, wades into more serious territory in The Blackcoat’s Daughter. She does so with aplomb, taking us through Joan’s story with the perfect amount of restraint.
Joan is mysterious, and Roberts plays that up, giving us morsels of information through subtle reactions that end up speaking volumes. Lucy Boynton, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as comfortable in her role as Rose. She tackles it well, but there’s a sense that her bad-girl persona doesn’t fit her; a conscious choice, perhaps.
At the heart of the film is a mystery that unfolds slowly and deliberately, clearly aware of the non-linear structure but organized nonetheless. It plays out perfectly, the requisite twists and turns are executed well. More than that, though, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is deliberately a mood piece, and there’s no denying that everything about it — from the acting to composer Elvis Perkins’ piercing soundtrack — works to create the mood that Osgood was working for.
However, it’s slightly disappointing that the film relies as much as it does on obvious various horror tropes. The film succeeds because Perkins is able to craft that perfectly unsettling atmosphere, but it’s limited by the narrative, which too often veers into territory that seems more indicative of derivative indie horror. Still, Osgood Perkins has managed to single himself out as a horror director with a unique and terrifying voice.