The Blackcoat's Daughter
Two girls must battle a mysterious evil force when they get left behind at their boarding school over winter break.
March 31st, 2017
An early scene in Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, shows a very optimistic medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) working to revive a dying patient. He keeps trying and keeps trying, until his mentor Dr. Harrod (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) stops him. She admonishes him with a “your optimism is touching but a waste of time. A good doctor knows when to stop.”
Now, as I examine my thoughts on the forthcoming Osgood Perkins horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz is the son of the legendary Anthony Perkins) – I can’t help but find that a different version of this quote perfectly fits the bill when looking at The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s final moments.
“A good writer/director knows when to stop.”
Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a socially awkward young girl at an all girl’s Catholic school. When her parents neglect to pick her up for winter break, she is left in the care of two school administrators who live on campus and an older, more street-wise and beautiful senior, Rose (Lucy Boynton) who will also be staying behind. The dorms are empty, and immediately, strange events begin to plague the very different young ladies. Meanwhile, a young woman named Joan (American Horror Story’s Emma Roberts) has just been released from some sort of institution, and is kindly offered a ride by an older male stranger named Bill (James Remar) and his not-so-friendly wife Linda (Lauren Holly). She happens to be going in the same direction as the grieving couple – to Bradford and to the school where Rose and Kat attempt to find the truth of the possibly supernatural events taking place.
The film reminded me – on several levels – of Bob Clark’s classic Black Christmas. Not because of subject matter, but because of the chillingly cold and snowy winter which serves as the backdrop for both films. Both films also start out with the beginning of a winter break (here in an all girl’s Catholic school and in Black Christmas a sorority), and the departure of most of the residents of the dorm (or sorority house). Both films set up the bleak loneliness for a few select characters who will remain over the holiday and both films use the sparse and wintery landscape to further chill the audience.
With strong performances from a mostly recognizable cast; including James Remar, Emma Roberts, Don’t Knock Twice’s Lucy Boynton and Feud’s Kiernan Shipka, it’s tough to point out the best. But, okay… I’ll try.
Okay, easier than I thought. Dumb and Dumber’s Lauren Holly steals the show in a brilliant supporting performance as Bill’s wife Linda. We only ever see her in a chugging car – attempting to warm up. And there’s a monologue she has somewhere in the middle of the film (and I hesitate to overuse this term – for fear of it losing some punch) which is really hypnotic. She’s describing something about her daughter, and you’ll simply lose yourself in this moment. It barely cuts away to Emma Roberts for reactions. Truly a remarkable piece of acting, and it makes me want to see much more of Lauren Holly’s work. While I know she’s been working, I still feel like questioning, “Where have you been?”
I was impressed with Emma Roberts’ work here. I’ve not necessarily been a fan of her work in the past, but she finds some real depth and heartbreaking emotion as Joan, and really carries her scenes with frightening power.
As for our two disparate schoolgirls, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton are perfectly cast. As their characters go in separate directions, in light of the events at the school, you’ll see their characters change and grow – allowing the actors to showcase multiple emotions and moods — all of them impressive.
The film is beautifully shot. You can feel the emptiness of the school dorms – in your bones. The editing (the film messes with the timeline) is masterful and suspenseful.
As for that timeline, the film becomes confusing at points, but as some of the secrets are revealed, so too will the audience find clarity.
And here we get to the reason for my re-done Re-Animator quote. There’s a very specific moment in the film, where all feels right. All feels complete. And the editing even offers a conclusive “fade to black”. And like so many “As Seen on TV” product commercial offers, “But, wait, there’s more!” The film comes back a moment later and continues. It was unnecessary and frankly, over-the-top. If there was a need to continue with this slight denoument, it could have been done better. It retreads familiar territory from The Exorcist. Despite this near ruinous choice, the moment after the groan-worthy scene – is terribly important to close things out. It raises additional intriguing questions, while also answering others. It all depends on what side of the fence you’ve been leaning towards. I think the key was to cut (to the bare bones) the majesty and spectacle of The Exorcist nonsense and move more quickly into the final reveals. The bottom line – the last ten minutes do a great deal of damage to an otherwise brilliant film. And such an unnecessary (and easily avoided) stumble is unforgiveable.
You may think this is just being overly-picky and that I’m looking for something to gripe about. Not at all. I was enthralled so deeply by the film up to that point, that when the wonderfully effective house of cards came tumbling down via poor writing/directing choices – it was almost a physical blow. You have to wonder what the thinking was when such a misstep occurs. As an audience member, I could feel the film’s change and feel the film’s flub. Why couldn’t the filmmakers feel and/or see the same thing I did? And that’s why it has to be brought to the forefront. And that’s why my rating for the film will suffer.
The film is more about the dark mood and extremely slow burn (this won’t appeal to everyone) rather than “boo” moments, although it does have some very effective jumps. And when a certain creature (Blackcoat himself) appears in several fuzzy backgrounds, you’ll be giggling with delight at the goosebumps which will run up and down your arms. A terribly effective costume paired with frightening placement in the frame, and you’ve got some very memorable creepy images.
Despite my profound reservations about the film’s final moments, I would venture a guess that this will end up as a contender for my “Best of 2017” end of the year article.
With a moody and frightening atmosphere, along with universally strong performances and fantastic camerawork, you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but may take issue with the same things I did – the ending simply flounders.
In the case of this film: a good writer/director knows when to stop.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is scheduled for limited theatrical release and VOD on March 31st, 2017 — from A24 and DirectTV.