Frozen in place: A critical review of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015)

It’s Christmastime, when most horror fans start turning to chilly films and wintry fair like “The Shining,” “The Thing” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The One with Mickey Rooney.” Of course, not all of us are that classically oriented. Some of us must always stay behind. There are those of us who brave “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”

A bunch of girls who all dress like pilgrims at a Catholic school in New England are supposed to be going home for a February break. However, Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) find themselves slightly stranded. Kat suspects her parents have been killed in a car crash; Rose has lied to her parents about the vacation dates so she can figure out her suspected pregnancy. Neither is going home right away.

As the girls figure out their respective situations, Rose casually suggests that the skeleton crew of remaining school nuns are secretly devil worshipers. But when she starts to see some strange things in the boiler room downstairs, she actually starts to wonder what is going on when the school is supposed to be shut. Off campus, a young woman (Emma Roberts) has apparently escaped from a mental facility, and she’s making her way to Bramford, the same school town where Rose and Kat are stuck.

“Blackcoat” starts off strong. The cast is good. Roberts in particular does not disappoint, suggesting psychological depth with every furtive glance. She finds an appropriate foil in James Remar, playing a seemingly sweet man who offers to give her a ride into town. Whenever the two interact, the tension is clear.

The photography–the cinematographer was Julie Kirkwood–is intelligent and atmospheric. Lingering shots of table settings and snowy school grounds, as well as kitchen utensils and bloody walls, suggest the contrast between polite social manners and harsh reality. The subject of that photography–a basically abandoned school, isolated physically and psychically by winter weather–is likewise like crack to me. The problem is that there is never any kind of payoff.

The writer-director is Oz Perkins, the son of Anthony “I was in the best horror movie ever” Perkins, but then again, he also did “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” another slow burning atmospheric horror film, which I’ve seen once and remember little of. Perkins is obviously someone who obviously knows what a good horror film looks like. He knows the aforementioned “Shining,” as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.” The problem is, he seems to have trouble with what a good horror film is supposed to do.

Throughout my viewing of “Blackcoat,” I was always struggling to understand what was going on. I don’t think its because the film was unclear. I think it’s because I didn’t care. There was a distinct disconnect between me and the action onscreen. When it looked like it was thrilling, even when it was beautifully presented, I felt no connection to what I saw. As fascinating as the images were, I was not fascinated with them beyond the level of art school composition.

The movie looks good, but good looks can only take you so far in life. You need personality too, and that is where “Blackcoat” is really lacking. Even at the end, once its mechanics had been revealed, it didn’t feel like the film had gone anywhere because I, as a viewer, hadn’t been taken anywhere.

“Blackcoat” is a film about tension that rises and rises and then falls backwards rather than forwards. Perhaps it would have been better in a different medium. In a painting, its frozen atmosphere and slow burning psychological suggestion would have been something interesting to ponder over. As a movie, it simply refuses to move.

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