The Blackcoat's Daughter
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The Blackcoat's Daughter

The current generation has been brought up on video vines, rapid fire sound bites and educational methods that are epitomized by Sesame Street with its constantly changing subjects that erode the person’s ability to focus, concentrating on it for a prolonged time. I’m certain that there is peer reviewed, academic journals that will support my statement but after years of discussing movies with the younger generation that a trend was noticeable. This does affect their perception and appreciation of all films, but it seems to be most notable with horror. Most of my favorite examples of this genre are typically in the sub category of psychological horror rather the predominately viscerally driven movies that have gained popularity in recent years. Movies like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ do not require much concentration. In fact, it is arguably better not to think too much when experiencing a slash and dash flick. In contrast, ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’ is slow to develop its themes, setting the stage for the inexorable build towards the explosive conclusion. For a movie with a running time of approximately 93 minutes, a full third of it was spent on properly setting the stage. For those that are incapable of clearing your mind and fully devoting your concentration to the progression of the story as it artistically develops. As I settled in for my first viewing of this movie it was immediately noticeable that the pacing was exceptionally slow. From my vantage point, I would prefer to say the pacing was carefully designed requiring a greater depth of exposition that usually encountered. What heightens this observation is the familiar setting, one used in a myriad of faster, bloodier movies, a private boarding school on winter break. Any fan of the various form taken by popular horror flicks should associate this as one of the better choices for a modern incarnation of a gothic horror story. It provides the requisite elements for this type of story. There is isolation, removal of potential sources of help, a reason to remove most of the students, winter break and the always popular source of local lore and scary tales told impressionable freshmen. To craft the properly spooky environment. In this instance, the mission was readily accomplished.

The original title of the film was ‘February,' referring to the time of year the story was set. In a prestigious Catholic boarding school in upstate New York February signals a time greatly anticipated by the faculty and students alike, the start of winter break. Almost everybody is anxious for an opportunity to get away from the structure and academic responsibilities that dominate the semester. For a horror story to be effective, it is crucial to generating the feeling of isolation, complete helplessness with no possibility of help. A deserted boarding school is ideally suited to this objective. Katherine, aka Kat (Kiernan Shipka), is a freshman, preparing for a piano recital as part of an assembly to welcome the parents there to pick up their children. Kat is hoping her father will attend, that he will be there to take her home. The psychological elements of the story are progressed greatly through the judicious use of flashbacks, images appearing quickly on a subliminal level borrowing almost imperceptibly into the consciousness of the audience. To the credit of the writer/director, Oz Perkins, the deployment these sudden flashes of imagery substantially of greater impact and intensity than an overly prolonged and gruesomely explicit scene relying on excessive amounts of stage blood and discarded entrails from a local slaughterhouse. The mind tends to relegate graphic images to some protected covert recess of the mind. The flashbacks as used here are infused subtly, with carefully crafted and nuanced pictures that are exceptionally effective in fostering the mood. When the reveal that Kat’s father has once again disappointed his daughter, the dark emotional mindset and overwhelming psychological devastation an empty seat presses upon the audience like a hammer strike. The dominant means utilized by the filmmaker to set the stage and draw the viewers into the intensity of what this fragile young woman is experiencing. The next aspect of a good horror story that is required I the introduction of a contrasting character embodied here by the older student, Rose (Lucy Boynton). She has also been left behind to endure the break chaperoned by a pair of dour nuns. This completes the construction of the sullen environment with a reasonable explanation for forcing two girls from mutually exclusive social cliques to be together. This helps in developing the idea that at least initially they are disinterested in each other’s predicament.

After the Headmaster, Mr. Gordon (Peter James Haworth), settles the girls in explaining the rules and introducing them to their chaperones, a pair of nuns, the girls ostensibly prepare for a quiet evening when Rose announces she is leaving campus for a date. Rose prepared for an anxious evening, she is pregnant and is about to confront the father. Mr. Gordon had assured them both that he is certain that their parents are just delayed and will pick them up the next day. The way this scene unfolds the Headmaster and students realize that this statement was false, intended to placate an illusion of normalcy despite its complete lack of veracity. To unnerve the younger girl, Rose tells a story that has told by campfire-style to frighten the new students. According to the local ‘urban legend,' the nuns residing in the school are worshipers of Satan, murdering people to present as human sacrifices.

A third young woman infused into the narrative, Joan (Emma Roberts). The first glimpse given to the viewers is her getting off on the bus that has arrived in upstate New York heading off for a whore bath in the bus stop rest room. In keeping with the established motif, Joan experiences her flashback revealing she was recently an inpatient in a psychiatric facility, confirming this by showing her removing the plastic identification wristband. The screenplay does something that is unfortunately extremely rare, respect for the intelligence and attention span. There is no background given concerning this new character, Joan. As so frequently occurs in real life, people drop into situations without first providing context. The fleeting images of a mental health facility combined with Joan attempting to use a phone booth only to discover the number is no longer in service. Within the mind of the audience, the pieces of the puzzle begin to click in place.

Joan has obviously been confined to the hospital for a considerable amount of time as an inpatient. You might jump to the correct conclusion in advance of the climactic reveal, but the best advice possible is to commit to the experience, mentally tracking the cognizant points but avoid the temptation to over analyze. As Joan sits outside on a bench waiting for the next bus, she is approached by a man, Bill (James Remar), who after initiating friend overtures offers Joan a ride. Because of the prevailing social environment, one thought that immediately comes to mind is ‘serial killer.' Even after his reluctant to help the wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), is introduced the viewer might still hold on to a dark scenario of Bill’s intention. True to the format of a well-crafted psychological thriller, the subtle infusion of potentially misleading information. Keeping the audience off balance is crucial to retaining the proper tone, the desired effect helped by intermixing scenes at the school with Kat and Rose with those further expanding upon the contribution to the story by Joan. Joan is shown cleaning up in a motel room provided by Bill, as Joan prepares for a shower a scar from a bullet wound seen on her shoulder. Accompanying this plot point is another flashback, this time to a police officer shoot a rifle at her. A little later, Bill comes in to check on Joan, he admits that the reason he stopped to help her as she reminded him of someone, his daughter.

For aficionados of cinema, there is an increasing reliance on aggregate review sites to help determine which movies are worth the time and cast to see. As a tool, these sites are useful, but a caveat of significance must be attached, reviews submitted by critics and audience members are skewed individual experience and preferences. I openly admit to being subject to these influences but do attempt to provide a rationale or foundation to support my opinions. As mentioned many cinephiles belonging to this current generation have a predilection for immediate gratification which fundamentally undermines the intrinsic property of the psychological horror/thriller, terror carefully constructed and laid out to build suspense. For fans willing to invest the time and express the requisite patience this film will outperform the ranking many sites have assigned to this movie. In any case, the film is well worth serious consideration and in return will provide an entertaining experience.

bulletAudio Commentary with Writer-Director Osgood Perkins
bullet"The Dead of Winter: Making The Blackcoat's Daughter" Featurette

Posted 07/17/2017

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