REVIEW: The Blackcoat’s Daughter
– By M Jones
Understatement, when used well, can be far more effective than limitless amounts of gore, and a good story to back it up certainly helps. While this film is not for everyone and may proceed at too slow a pace for more impatient viewers, The Blackcoat’s Daughter proves itself to be a masterpiece of horror storytelling for those who are willing to be lulled into its eerie calm. Set on the backdrop of what is an obvious Ontario winter at a near empty all girls Catholic boarding school during a February break, isolation and loneliness chill every sense of warmth, and it is the dark that provides the fire in a seeping, steady crescendo that both consumes and abandons.
That slow, careful use of isolation is a trademark of Osgood Perkins’s work and is a theme that populates his other film, notably the highly claustrophobic slow burn of I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (which, oddly enough, is his second film, with The Blackcoat’s Daughter earning a late release). The deep, penetrating point of view we gain of the main characters always comes at a slightly off balance angle, which is unsettling right from the start. Young Katherine smiles at nothing, pauses and reflects at odd intervals, at times talking to herself in unintelligible whispers. Rose has her own demons, notably an unwanted pregnancy. Both of these young women are experts at deflection of their inner torments which goes mostly unnoticed by those around them. Rose smiling happily for the camera only for her despair and worry to remain undocumented. Katherine, alone and desperate, falters as she sings, seeking the guidance of an invisible shadow. They are forced to spend a couple of days alone together at the boarding school, but they do not become friends. They are alone in their own dramas. They are both young women teetering on the edge of disaster, both of them shrouded in impossible choices that could easily tip them into a place void of redemption. (If one wants to claim that Rose’s problems are more easily dealt with than Katherine’s one would have to ignore the setting they are in. They are in a Catholic school, and Rose is toying with the idea of an abortion. Within that doctrine, Rose has just as much to lose as Katherine.)
That sense of uncomfortable imbalance, like trudging across February ice in shoes with no treads, continues throughout the film, as time is pushed forwards and back, where we meet Joan who is far from innocent and has a darkness that is solely her own. She is mysterious and menacing throughout, both fragile and deadly and the viewer is unsure if she is more of one than the other. Likewise, we wonder at the kindness of Bill and his overly cautious, unwilling wife. We wonder what his motives are for taking an interest in Joan and rescuing her from her shivering loneliness at an empty bus station. His own haunted past crushes against Joan’s. The film slips back and forth on an uncertain, biting wind that is fraught with contrasts of ice and comfort, harmlessness versus desperation. Every subtle shift counts. It is a testament to Perkins’s storytelling that no frame of this film is wasted, every single second provides hints and clues, both to time and setting and the potential horror of future and past. Winter becomes a character. The colour blue figures prominently, reminding one of cold and ice both inside the walls of the boarding school and without. Joan is only seen in darkness until the bright, cold winter daylight exposes her. This is one film that begs of a second viewing and it does not disappoint. Clues that were dismissed at first are suddenly bold and glaring. Hints of intent become shocking. A second look creates an entirely new film.
The sound of a record player, the needle bumping against the label and its empty scratch, suddenly becomes the most terrifying thing you’ve ever heard solely because of its linear significance.
There are very few films that can seamlessly create period pieces out of millennial timelines, and fewer still that can use the evolving technology as accurate markers within the narrative. The setting has been painstakingly created with this in mind, from the types of ‘cellular phones’ used and the outdated CD stereo on Rose’s desk to the hospital tag on Joan’s wrist. Within the back and forth weaving of the story a decade has passed, and though things still look very similar on the surface, the viewer is pressed to peer deeper, to understand that there are vast changes if one knows how to look. These shifts are not solely in setting, they are stitched deep into character as well. There is hesitation. Uncertainty. Over it all is the constant feeling that a terrible mistake about to be made, that no matter how much one tries, one can’t go home again.
Sometimes the most comfortable place for those pushed headlong into a solitary abyss is any hand that is outstretched, where being with something of unimaginable evil is still far better than being all alone. If our monsters are all we have, we miss them when they’re gone. There is nothing more tortuous to the human soul than the eroding power of loneliness and its companion, abandonment. Perkins’s film was originally titled ‘February’ which I think is far more apt. February is, by its nature, the most unforgiving and isolating month, the shortest and yet it feels the longest with the way the cold and dark grip those in its relentless winter. On a backdrop of frosted white, the solitude of one’s choices and its aftermath becomes obvious. It is a bitter place that is too unwelcome for even monsters to remain.