In The Blackcoat’s Daughter, writer-director Oz Perkins exhibits a committed understanding of the cinematic value of silence and of vastly underpopulated compositions. Nothing is creepier than nothing, which suggests godlessness in the horror genre, which correspondingly indicates cracks in existence from which evil can spring. Early in the film, Perkins lingers on Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a student at a girls’ boarding school that’s about to shut its doors for winter break. The headmaster tries to talk to Kat about her parents as she stares at a corner of his office with a hint of a smile on her face, the negative space in the room attaining a chilling emptiness that parallels the faraway quality in her eyes. Later, an older student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), tells Kat about a satanic legend while standing in a doorway engulfed in shadows that suggest a portal to another dimension. Most hauntingly, Rose later spies Kat in the school’s furnace room, bowing to an unknown entity as flames roar in the dank darkness. These scenes rhyme with one another thematically, painting a cumulative geometric portrait of mental and emotional devolution.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is more concerned with setup than punchline, deriving dread from what might be about to happen. This emphasis on the wind-up can be partially attributed to the unoriginality of said punchline, which, when sprung, only retrospectively deflates the film. For all its portent, there isn’t much of a mystery in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and this is clearly by Perkins’s design. The film’s obsession with stylishly threadbare atmosphere and architecture recalls The House of the Devil and The Pact, with a multi-pronged female-centric narrative that suggests Certain Women, which also had a feel for lonely, existentially unmooring silence.
Perkins is also quite, sometimes distractingly indebted to the films of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Drive, most specifically the scene at Winkie’s, a Denny’s-like diner where two patrons talk about a monster that might be living behind the restaurant’s dumpster. Like the ill-fated customers of Winkie’s, the characters in The Blackcoat’s Daughter talk slowly and deliberately, as if underwater, and the score fills in their pauses with a nightmarish sense of otherworldly inevitability. Perkins repeatedly emulates the rhythm of this scene, occasionally courting tedium, most notably when a mother (Lauren Holly) takes a laughably long time to tell a young woman, Joan (Emma Roberts), about an episode with a girl who resembled her daughter. During this and other passages, one can feel Perkins straining for his surrealism, which seems to seep out naturally through Lynch’s pores.
Yet the film nevertheless has a sad, macabre integrity. Shipka, Boynton, Roberts, Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair.