The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

*. I think I should begin by saying that I watched this movie on a streaming service, not on DVD. Which means I haven’t heard the director’s commentary, so some of these notes may be more speculative than usual.
*. I’ll begin with the matter of the title. It was originally shown at festivals, and released in the U.K., as February. That’s not very catchy, so it was quickly changed to The Blackcoat’s Daughter. This has a chillier ring to it, but I’m still not sure what it refers to. Another curious thing is that the version I saw gave the title as The Devil’s Daughter. So I guess the “Blackcoat” is the devil. But I also associate it with priests as well (the infamous “black robes”).
*. The bottom line here is that a title like The Blackcoat’s Daughter sounds good, but it’s also kind of vague. Which sort of sums up the movie as well.
*. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against vague. And I liked The Blackcoat’s Daughter. But it is one of those movies where the action is rather murky. I’ll say what I think is going on now, so consider this a spoiler warning.
*. As I see it, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is just a disturbed girl who is (a) suffering a bit of shock from the loss of her parents (which she has been alerted to in a dream) and (b) stricken with cabin fever due to being left in a religious boarding school over the winter holidays. She begins to see visions of a shadowy devil figure and receives staticky telephone calls telling her to kill. She goes on a rampage, carving up a couple of administrative nuns and another girl named Rose. Years later, she escapes from an asylum and, adopting the identity of Joan, gets a ride back to the school from Rose’s parents. A fatal bit of circumstance. She kills the parents, but in the end feels abandoned by her dark master.
*. A couple of things complicate matters. First, the story is presented on parallel tracks, moving back and forth from the events of Kat’s original outbreak and her return journey some time later. This in itself isn’t hard to figure out, but what makes things complicated is the fact that Kat is played by two different actresses (Shipka and Emma Roberts) who don’t look that much alike. So when “Joan” is revealed to be Kat you really have to do some mental adjustments to make it fit. I’ll confess that when I first saw the movie I assumed that Joan was being possessed by the same devil that had taken over Kat earlier as she got closer to the school’s grounds.
*. The other complication has to do with the nature of Kat’s hallucinations. I assumed these were imaginary, since that’s how they are represented. Nobody else sees or hears anything but Kat. I thought of the story here as being akin to the Slender Man stabbing. As far as the visions themselves go, they certainly could have come up with a scarier devil than the guy with bunny ears, but aside from that I felt this part of the story was better handled than the business of the two Kats.
*. Where The Blackcoat’s Daughter really succeeds is in creating atmosphere. This is a genuinely creepy movie, a little slow for some but I found it very suspenseful. The sound design got a lot of praise, but things like way the noise of a door opening made me jump (three times!) have to first be set up with the general handling of the film’s look and feel, its slow pans and unexpected cuts.
*. So my hat goes off to Osgood (“Oz”) Perkins for how creepy it all is, and for his brother Elvis’s score, whose forbidding gutturals fit well with the bleak depopulated landscape. The table is well set.
*. Alas, such an exquisite slow burn fizzles when it comes to actual scares. This movie is all about the anticipation of horror. When the knives come out the resulting violence and gore isn’t even startling. It just registers as a disappointment. In contrast, I love the shot where the camera turns about in the front room of the house the dead women are in, finally showing us the police coming in the back but only revealing a blood stain on the doorjamb. That’s it. Because there’s no point showing us anything more right then.
*. I wonder what the first horror movie was to make use of these body-artist contortions and movements. Perhaps the famous “spider walk” sequence that was cut from the theatrical release of The Exorcist. They’ve gone on to become very popular, especially in J-horror. I like the surprise shot here of Kat doing a back arch in bed, but at the same time I guess I’ve seen enough of these extreme yoga moves that it wasn’t as surprising as it should have been.
*. The cast (Shipka, Roberts, Lucy Boynton) is really good, but they don’t have to do much aside from observing or bearing witness in an enigmatic silence that allows for suspicious ambiguity to sneak in to their every glance and gesture. Shipka’s first scene with the priest sets the tone nicely. She’s even creepier than he is, and he’s the one in partial silhouette.
*. I’m glad the film is mostly silent, as I have to register (once again) my dismay at what’s being done to dialogue in today’s movies. Without closed-captioning I think I would have missed at least a third of the lines. Do filmmakers not even care if an audience can hear what the characters are saying? Do they think it’s not important? Or do they think it’s more realistic to have the dialogue muttered or whispered inaudibly?
*. For some reason this kind of horror film became popular around this time. A lot of people found The Blackcoat’s Daughter very similar to The Witch, and it is, but I found Black Mountain Side to be another close analog (the cabin fever, the delusions, the strange score, the even stranger-looking “devil”). These movies all tend to have a slow pace and are much quieter than the usual American horror fare. Could it be a coincidence that they were all filmed in Canada? Or that they were early work (if not the feature debuts) of their directors?
*. I don’t think The Blackcoat’s Daughter is entirely successful, but I do think it’s a very good first film. Perkins makes us imagine a bogeyman without revealing it, conjuring a sense of threat out of empty space. Not even darkness seems so dangerous as eyes looking past us to something invisible, or just over our shoulder. I’ve heard a lot of people call this film boring, but that wasn’t my response. If anything, I would have slowed it down even more, and shown even less.

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