There are million kinds of horror movies. The don’t-go-in-the-house tale, the power-of-Christ-compels-you paranormal chiller, the slice-and-dice serial-killer gorefest, the list of subgenres goes on and on. Like a candy shop, there’s something inside for every sweet tooth. Osgood Perkins’ directorial debut, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, belongs to a horror category that’s a lot less in-your-face than those ones. It’s an atmospheric slow-burn that’s heavy on moody insinuation and light on overt gotcha scares. At it’s best, it’s seductively creepy; at it’s worst, it’s annoyingly cryptic. In the end, I was slightly more annoyed than seduced.
Set at a snowy Catholic boarding school for girls, the movie picks up just as winter break is about to begin. Everyone has gone home for the holidays, except for two students whose parents didn’t pick them up. The younger one is Kat (Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka), the older is Rose (Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton). A religious school and young women on the verge of adulthood are pretty thematically-loaded ingredients for any storyteller interested in tweaking taboos and tapping into primal impulses. But Perkins is too coy to hit anyone over the head. He’s a bit of a tease. He slowly and deliberately builds a mood of impending dread that becomes almost dreamlike and Lynchian. Even more so, when we meet a third young woman (Emma Roberts) who arrives at a bus station on her way to the girls’ school. Why does she need to get there? This movie requires patience.
All three characters will ultimately intersect and the story’s enigmatic Rubik’s Cube will eventually be solved, but the journey is a frustratingly oblique one (although the effectively haunting score, by Perkins’ brother Elvis gooses things nicely). Perkins, the son of one of the most iconic figures in horror (Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins), clearly knows how to raise goosebumps and get audiences reaching for their armrests. If only he was as interested in the payoff. In a way, it’s not that particularly surprising to learn that The Blackcoat’s Daughter is being released by the indie company, A24—a distributor whose recent genre films like The Witch, Under the Skin, Enemy, and the upcoming A Ghost Story are starting to spell out a distinct “house style”: Movies that are smart, unconventional, challenging, and yes, even occasionally exasperating like this one. B–