The root of evil in “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” isn’t particularly original or deep, but the movie’s twisty plot and eerie atmosphere makes it deeply unsettling anyway. A chilling package of muted performances, disquieting sound design and isolated locations, the directorial debut of Osgood Perkins is a competent exercise in style dripping with tidbits of gothic horror that don’t entirely coalesce into a satisfying whole, but offer plenty of frightening possibilities along the way. For fans of the genre, it’s a juicy melange of the right stuff.
Initially called “February” when it surfaced on the festival circuit in late 2015, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” arrives months after Perkins’ Netflix-released sophomore effort, the moody haunted house thriller “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” and together they illustrate the stirrings of a strong genre director searching for the ideal vessel.
The bulk of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” involves a pair of dueling storylines that only overlap in the closing moments. At an isolated prep school, teen students Kat (Kiernan Shipka, a far cry from Sally Draper territory) and Rose (Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”) find themselves mysteriously abandoned by their parents over winter break when the rest of the students and faculty vanish. Wandering the empty wooden hallways and gazing out at a barren snowy landscape, they’re trapped in a purgatory rich with unknown variables, and clearly possessed by a devious presence just outside the frame.
From there, Perkins cuts to the equally ambiguous circumstances surrounding a nomadic young woman named Joan (Roberts) who’s waiting for a train to Bramford in the dead of night when she’s picked up by an older couple heading that way. Like the younger women in the other plot line, she’s strangely withdrawn, possessed by some unspoken dread that only rears its terrible head in the final act.
These dreary proceedings are underscored by a low, groaning score that hints at something awful around the corner; it hangs in the air for much of this hypnotic mood piece, sometimes dragging it down redundant pathways, but more often drawing us closer to the scene to connect the dots: Are these events unfolding at the same time? Do the characters in both stories know each other? What was that about Satanic worship? And: Is there any significance to the name of the Connecticut town where the school is based and the apartment building in a certain classic Roman Polanski horror movie?
That last clue is evidence of the extreme debt Perkins owes to the movies referenced here. (There’s a touch of “The Exorcist” to it as well.) If the director’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the son of “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins, but Osgood Perkins is less in tune with his father’s best-known credit than Polanski’s. At the same time, this icy portrait of young women isolated from the outside world and driven to psychotic extremes could just as easily fit into the universe of “The Virgin Suicides,” and Perkins’ bleak finale leaves much open to interpretation. There’s a certain heavy-handedness to the pastiche in play, but the director’s emphasis on tone makes “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” more of a meditation on dark and dangerous feelings than supernatural frights.
To that end, Roberts and Shipka have been ideally cast — it’s not easy to play a space cadets without getting monotonous, but they come across as subdued head cases who could go postal at any moment. These aren’t particularly sophisticated performances, but they’re solid vehicles for these actresses to showcase their restraint. Above all else, though, the movie provides a sturdy showcase for a filmmaker with a compelling dedication to his influences. Alongside “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” it proves that Perkins can generate palpable dread around the unknown. Now he just needs to take that dread someplace we haven’t been before.
“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is now playing in limited release and available on VOD.