Guest Author: Bernice M. Murphy
Warning: This Article Contains Minor Spoilers.
Writer/director Oz Perkins’ assured debut feature film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), known in the UK and Ireland as February, represents a fascinating treatment of a preoccupation that has become intriguingly prominent in recent American horror cinema: that of the threat posed by dangerously unhinged girls and young women. The past five years alone have seen the release of Excision (Richard Bates, 2012); Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013), Alyce Kills (Jay Lee, 2011), The Bleeding House (Philip Gelatt, 2011), We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013), Last Girl Standing (Benjamin R. Moody, 2015), Let Her Out (Cody Calahan, 2016), Darling (Mickey Keating, 2015), and The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). Then there is the much-hyped French film Raw (2016), which is about a neurotic female student whose first-term mental breakdown leads to cravings that are a tad extreme. All of these films are about deeply troubled young women who possess an initially latent potential for violence that explodes in the second half of the narrative. Their horrific behavior is usually presented as being the result of severe mental illness that has gone tragically undetected by family and friends because they look (relatively) “normal.” Both dysfunctional familial environments and the romantic and professional stresses of becoming a fully individuated and conventionally successful adult are often implicitly presented as key contributing factors.
The literary godmother of this trend is Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), who is, as it happens, currently in the midst of a long-overdue critical revival. She specialized in writing perceptive and troubling novels about isolated and disturbed young women for whom the boundaries between fantasy and reality have become dangerously indistinct. This recurring theme reached its finest expression in her final novel, the witty and unsettling masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Intriguingly, Oz Perkins (son of horror icon Antony) is a huge fan of Jackson’s work, and revealed in a recent interview in Rue Morgue #172 that his second film was initially slated to be the long-awaited screen adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although he subsequently decided to make I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) for Netflix instead.
It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that The Blackcoat’s Daughter displays some subtle debts to Jackson, who, like Perkins in his two films to date, has an obvious interest in the psychological landscape of isolated and compulsive women cooped up in claustrophobic domestic spaces. Kubrick fans may also detect strong traces here of The Shining, particularly in relation to Perkins’ brooding camera work, and the way in which the snowy weather exacerbates the isolation of the small cast of characters.
The film initially centers around events taking place in a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York and is set during a suggestively vague time period (cell phones exist, but almost no one uses them: indeed, a payphone plays a pivotal role in the plot). As the story begins, it is the start of the week-long February midterm break (hence the film’s original and UK title). Pallid-looking freshman student Katherine (played by a typically excellent Kiernan Shipka) has had an ominous and possibly prophetic dream the night before which suggests that something bad has happened to her parents. Her concerns are exacerbated when they fail to pick her up for the holidays, but her fears are dismissed by the officious headmaster. Katherine’s story from this point intersects with that of an older student at the school, Rose (Lucy Boynton) who has deliberately given her parents the wrong pick-up date so that she can meet her boyfriend. Although Perkins quickly establishes that Rose is a much more complicated (and likeable) character than her initially dismissive reaction to Katherine suggests, she is too consumed by her own problems to prioritize babysitting the off-kilter and strangely needy freshman, whose behavior back in the empty dorms rapidly becomes more and more unsettling.
Events at the school (slyly named “The Bramford,” just like the apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby, which provides an important narrative clue) are interwoven throughout with apparently disconnected scenes playing out elsewhere that involve a clearly troubled young woman who calls herself “Joan” (Emma Roberts). Having arrived alone at a snowy and remote bus station in the middle of the night, Joan is offered a lift by apparently well-meaning Good Samaritan Bill (James Remar). Luckily for Joan, the stranger and his wife are heading in the same direction that she is. To say much more about the relationship between the two stories would ruin the film for the many viewers who have yet to see it. However, whilst there is admittedly a degree of directorial misdirection at play here, for this viewer at least, the film is so atmospheric and sensitively realized that the “twist,” which hits us about an hour in only adds to the depth of the tragic denouement. This is also because in addition to the unlikely link established between the initially disconnected storylines, both narrative strands are united by their focus on loneliness and the longing for emotional connection.
The Black Coat’s Daughter is also the creepiest and saddest take on the hoary old “teenage girl possessed by demonic evil” trope I have seen in years. In some respects, it reminded me of Paul Tremblay’s splendid novel A Head Full of Ghosts, which similarly blurs the lines between the psychological and the supernatural in relation to this basic trope, albeit to very different effect.
Disconcerting flashbacks ultimately provide an explanation for the pervasive air of wrongness that pervades scenes set back at the school from the outset (the score, by Perkins’ brother Elvis, also adds much to proceedings). There are few directors who can manage to make an empty chair, a half-opened doorway, or a room lit by a single light source frightening, but Perkins repeatedly manages it here. Along with Brad Anderson’s Session 9, this is one of few horror films I have seen which actually become more unsettling when watched second time around.
It says much about the film that its most upsetting moment in retrospect – and the moment, that for the careful viewer, explains all that has gone before and all that will happen in future – involves the quiet utterance of two simple words – “Don’t go.” They are murmured by an incredibly dangerous yet pitiful individual for whom a toxic combination of loneliness, mental illness, and, possibly, genuine supernatural evil, has created a void that can never be filled, no matter how desperate her attempts to do so. Although The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s slow-burning fuse may frustrate some viewers, this is a future cult classic that deserves to be seen. Whilst there is also much to admire in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House – a commendably weird haunted house movie which further establishes Perkins as a unique and extremely promising writing and directing talent – it is The Blackcoat’s Daughter that freezes the blood, and lingers in the mind.
If you’re intrigued, here’s the trailer for The Blackcoat’s Daughter:
Bernice M. Murphy is lecturer in Popular Literature at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin where she specializes in American horror and gothic narratives. Her recent books include The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture and, (with Elizabeth McCarthy), Lost Souls of Horror and the Gothic.