Movie Mondays: The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Blackcoats Daughter-posterWe don’t get real winters down here in Houston, Texas. Not like the ones Trista and I saw growing up in Michigan or when we were living together in the snow belt of Massachusetts (aka, Worcester). Instead, there are a few weeks of cold that arrive around January and then depart before the end of February. Overnight frost warnings let the locals know to go out and cover their plants up. When we first came to Texas, we had a jolly time watching the locals dig out winter jackets when temperatures dropped down into the 50s Fahrenheit. Now that we have been living in Texas over ten years, our blood has thinned enough so we also dig out warmer jackets when the temps drop down around there. However, both of us still have family and friends up north, and we visit as time allows, which usually means around the holidays. So, we have not lost all perspective on snow. Our daughter knows hot summers, but she knows snow only as something visited, not as the intense weather trap that descends around Thanksgiving and overstays its welcome into April.

However, I love a horror story that can evoke the cold in me, drawing on my own recollections of the stuff even though I might be experiencing the tale with one hundred degree F temperatures outside . . . Dan Simmons’ Franklin expedition-inspired novel, The Terror, did this. Christopher Golden’s Ararat did this. Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining does this quite effectively, as well as Stephen King’s source novel. And a little film from 2015 did it, too.

That film was one we had seen the occasional trailer for at our Alamo Drafthouse. It had not grabbed us enough to make room in our lives to see it in theaters, alas. With our daughter newly born and no real babysitters to speak of, it took something special to get us both heading to the theaters. So, we had to wait for this one to hit video on demand.

When it did, we watched it twice. The first night we watched the film well after dark and with the volume down because we did not want to wake the baby. At that time, we kept her in the room with us, sleeping away in her rock and play or in her pack and play. Yes, that’s right. Our wee one has been exposed to films in general (and horror films in particular) since birth.

Unfortunately, sound is a tad important in this picture. So, we missed out on quite a bit. The next night, we watched it a second time with subtitles on as well as louder general sound. Our responses were much improved when we got a better grasp on what the filmmakers were trying to do and how they were doing it.

We wrote the review in May 2017, and it hit our column either in the tail end of that month or in the beginning of June, 2017. Strange time, perhaps, for a winter set film.

I’ll be damned if the cold did not creep into me, either. In some ways, my head is one giant nostalgia machine. It stores up today’s sensations to be revisited later on, often to maximum creeptastic effect. I know the bone chilling cold that this movie’s snowscapes were evoking, the cold that would make the snot dribble out your nose and then harden inside your wool scarf, making tiny jagged edges. I know the blast of wind that would burn your eyeballs while you had to relentlessly assail the sidewalk or street side parking space (at least in Worcester). Those experiences added to the film’s effects (for me, anyway), making me feel cold. The picture’s story had a similar effect on my spirits. It’s a horror film told in pieces, seemingly disconnected at the beginning, but it builds toward a gloriously chilling effect.

Also, upon reflection it’s nice to know that Kiernan Shipka was involved in good work even before she hit the Netflix big time as the titular character in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a show Trista and I enjoy quite immensely.

Here we go with one more revisit to a review we wrote back in the good old days. Trista and I hope you enjoy this little revisit and perhaps seek out the picture itself. Even with the sound down, it’s spellbinding.

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The Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents:  The Blackcoat’s Daughter

By Daniel and Trista Robichaud

Synopsis – Three interweaving POV stories from three students at a posh girl’s boarding school in upstate New York tell a brooding and atmospheric horror/thriller story. A blonde freshman (Kat, played by Kiernan Shipka) dreams her father, a shadowy figure in a black coat, shows her the wreck of the family car containing her deceased parents. She wakes two days before the winter break, and all the students are preparing to go home with their parents. We see a heavily made up Kat talking to the Bramford school’s priest, who tells her he cannot stay for Kat’s recital. A disappointed Kat stares into space, and smiles creepily at things only she can see. She seems happy to be staying at the school.

Rose (Lucy Boynton), an attractive senior brunette, gets her class picture taken. We learn she may be pregnant, and has lied to her parents to stay an extra day at school. The headmaster tries in vain to contact Rose’s and Kat’s parents, and ends up leaving the girls overnight with the school nurses. The empty school is full of creepy sounds, and Rose abandons Kat for a tryst with her lover after regaling Kat with tales of how the nurses worship Satan.

Intercut with their timeline is the tale of a third girl, Joan (Emma Roberts), whose ties to both Kat and Rose become clear over the course of her story. We meet her alone at a deserted bus station, and see her flashing back to captivity in a hospital. She takes out a map in front of the ticket office, plotting a route to Bramford or parts east. Joan ends up catching a ride with Bill (James Remar) and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly), a pair of Bramford parents on their way east.

What will happen with Rose and Kat at the deserted Bramford school? Who is Joan, and where is she going? Is the helpful Bill a predator in disguise? Who will the dissonant music out as the antagonist, and is the supernatural at play? Watch writer/director Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) to find out!

TRISTA’S TAKE

I gotta be honest, Dan. It really looks like 2015 was the year for girl’s boarding school horror movies, and no one told us! First #Horror (2015), then The Silenced (2015), and now The Blackcoat’s Daughter!

Remind me not to submit my resume to teach science at posh girl’s schools any time soon, eh?

DANIEL’S TAKE

Now that we have a daughter, I don’t want Baby E to go to any of these places. Boarding schools are demonic evil. Perhaps we should stick with public school evil, instead.

THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER has an interesting history. It started shooting in 2014 and likely wrapped up then as it appeared in a Film Festival that year. However, it did not get its theatrical release or a release to streaming services until February/March 2017. I suspect the producers either didn’t know how to market it, or they didn’t believe audiences would know what to make of it. And I can see why.

There’s little CGI on display here, and the shocking scenes of “horror” that modern audiences seem to expect these days are few and far between. Instead, we have a simmering character study . . . or would it be a study of characters? It’s a moody piece, it’s eerie at times, and it has some intriguing visual elements. However, the fear on display is of a brooding sort the kids are all calling “slow burn” these days, but which used to be simply called “atmospheric” in the good old days.

TRISTA

The framing of this movie, as well as the lingering camera and the ominous music really left me feeling uncomfortable. You would think that this would be the sign of a good thriller, but what kept me at the edge of my seat was not worry for the characters but wondering exactly when the movie would divert into ‘after school special’ territory. Much to my grateful surprise, the girl in peril tropes never manifested, even though their potential lingered in subtext. Because of this tenterhooks feeling, I had a lot of trouble enjoying the movie for what it was. Honestly, however, that may be my fault – I have a bias against those stories since I got so many of them as a kid.

Take the early scene with Kat and the priest. She’s wearing far too much makeup and speaking frankly, almost flirtatiously, with him. She wants him to stay, or possibly cancel his travel plans, so that he can see her recital. Ominous music plays… And then the priest wishes her a nice break and dismisses her, with and threads of an inappropriate relationship quashed.

DANIEL

Well, as someone who doesn’t like message movies or moralistic lessons in place of actual stories, I can’t argue. That breed of simplistic storytelling gets in my craw. Cautionary tales are best when they show complexities.

I too initially expected some of the characters to turn into the sort of one-dimensional antagonists used in that kind of storytelling. However, I quickly learned that the movie is playing with the audience. We fell right into the trap.

Note how in the scene where Kat and the priest are “flirting” how the music gets intense during the conversation, but when the dismissal occurs, the music suddenly stops, breaking the building tension.

The camera work and the music are both giving us hints of a character’s psychology. At three points in the movie, a single character is named. That character’s perspective is then shown in an intriguing tip of the hat to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Once those perspective characters are named, the film then finds ways to show that character’s perspective on items whenever that character is on screen.

For example, when Rose is introduced (and she is the first named character in the movie, though her title card does not appear for some time) she glides into a room, walking in a dreamy slow motion past all the other students. Some stand, some sit, all the others have their eyes closed and none of them move. The effect is the classic “It’s the hot girl at school being viewed by a yearning love interest,” however the mis en scene (the fancy French term for the position of things in a camera frame) gives a different interpretation. The closed eyes and immobility of those around her give her the appearance of being the only person alive in that space. She might be walking past mannequins or corpses, but she is unafraid. I took this as a sign of her headspace: in Rose’s little world, she is the only important, fully animated person when she walks in the room.

This scene is revisited later, during another character’s perspective, and there is a touching, human coda to her walking into a room and then sitting down to have her class photo taken. After the camera makes the click-whir sound, her smile fades and a troubled girl shines through. It’s all rather well done.

TRISTA

My other (personal) problem with The Blackcoat’s Daughter was the heavy use of indistinct or altered voices in the script. A couple times important information is given in either low growls or an indistinct voice… and I just didn’t catch it due to bad ears. This left me hanging under a WTF? thought balloon for much of the second half of the picture. I had to go back and rewatch the beginning half of the movie with the closed captioning on to understand how the second half tied into the first.

Color me crazy, but a film has problems when artists conceal clues that way! Arrrgh. She Hulk Trista Smash!

DANIEL

And here I have to disagree. The sound design is exceptional. I was fascinated with how the film used in scene sounds, score, and effects. It’s a rich and complex audio tapestry reminiscent of the work Trent Reznor did on the Broken EP and The Downward Spiral album. Unfortunately, we were somewhat doomed on this front by the fact that we were probably not in the right setup. This movie would reward a full on theatrical surround sound system. The effects were carefully crafted to unnerve. However, as we were watching this in the comforts of our own home and with Baby E in the room, we had to keep volumes on the lower side. That worked against us getting some of the details. Because I was closer to the speakers, I apparently got more of the clues – there was a garbled, creepy phone call where one of the characters hears someone (or something!) telling her to kill . . . I heard it that first time, you discovered it on the rewatch (with closed captioning).

I agree that not having all the avenues for receiving the clues would make the picture less coherent. However, everything holds together nicely. The second viewing we shared showed me how meticulously crafted the whole thing was.

Hey, Trista, is it me or did you see the opening third (if not the full experience) as heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick?

TRISTA

Since The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a character study, I can’t fault the cinematographer and director for taking a page from a renowned director like Kubrick. I’m rather surprised they went for Kubrick over John Carpenter, but perhaps Carpenter was ‘too genre’ for their tastes.

Kubrick is known for creepy atmospherics heavily influenced by soundtrack. The two Kubrick movies this brought to mind for me were The Shining (1980, and my favorite Kubrick) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Anyone who’s seen the opening sequence of The Shining has an appreciation for how the ominous music can set the tone of the entire movie. There are also dissonant musical moments during many of the ‘haunted’ sequences that reminded me of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Eyes Wide Shut also has a dissonant, atonal soundtrack that heightens character tensions in this film.

Here’s a quickie for you, Dan. Did you notice the similarities to Persona (1966) in the movie (especially the poster)? (Can’t say too much, because spoilers!)

DANIEL

Wow, Trista. I hadn’t noticed the Ingmar Bergman touches until you mentioned them, but they are definitely there. And specifically Persona? It has been a while since I’ve seen the film, but the comparison is apt in some regards. Definitely food for further thought!

Howard Hawks famously identified a successful movie as having three good scenes and one great one. My view on successful horror movies ties more into how I feel about them when I’m turning off the lights and going to bed. If I feel the vulnerable tingle in my spine, then it’s a successful horror movie. In that regard, I count The Blackcoat’s Daughter as successful. I was creeped out carrying the baby in her bassinet up the stairs with the lights out behind me. I can’t say I like the film as a whole thing, in many ways the parts are greater than their sum, but some of those parts were incredibly effective, hitting my buttons hard.

Even as I sit here typing this and reflecting on bits from the movie, I am getting some of that feeling. The movie got seriously under my skin.

Closing thoughts, Trista?

TRISTA

Yeah, it’s not often you practically run up the stairs to bed like that! You’re adorable.

I suspect that reactions to this movie will be mixed between those who got the clues and those who didn’t, as well as that trope trap I walked right into. I rather hated it the first time, yet found myself enjoying the movie much more the second time around. If you don’t mind a slow burn, check it out… and make sure the volume is up!

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter is available in DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming editions.

“Movie Mondays: The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud. This review contains elements from “The Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” which appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight website and is copyright © 2017.

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