I was looking for horror movie recommendations a little while back (because it’s Shocktober) and my friend Dan Coffey asked if David Lynch movies counted. I replied that they didn’t; Lost Highway was certainly unsettling, but insufficiently horror-like to me. In my head, at least, I needed strange sounds in the night, supernatural presences, people dispatched in terrible and inventive ways. Things that stalked or crawled. Creatures that fed.
But when it came to fiction, though, I was clearly more lenient when unwittingly policing those genre boundaries. The stories of Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti are, for me, squarely in the horror camp, though sometimes the only “horror” element in these tales is a sustained, even unbearable, sense of dread. Monsters, if any, are offstage. (Aickman’s ambiguous endings in particular contribute to the reader’s discomfort — a satisfying lack of closure, if you will.)
In short, I realize my own criteria for horror encompassed a far wider range in literature than it was in film. I wonder if this has to do with the way horror cinema — maybe much more than any cinematic genre — is a continuous dialogue with past movies, riffing on familiar themes and elements. (Arguing about the borders of genre, criticizing so-called literary fiction writers “slumming it” when they try out fantasy or horror, etc. — that’s all a little tiresome, but that seems to be more heated in literature than in the movies, where I figure the marketing department is more influential.)
In a previous entry I criticized a horror movie (Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing) for not staying within its lines — as my friend Valerie Soe put it, “because it refuses to play by the rules of narrative conventions” — only to praise in this entry a different one that similarly, though far more subtly, disobeys horror norms. Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a horror movie, all right, but in execution it has more in common with the simmering sense of unease as the fiction writers mentioned above.
The less said about The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s plot, the better, though I’ll at least sketch out the setup: an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in the middle of winter, and two girls who have to stay in the now-deserted school over winter break. Suspiria, of course, comes to mind (and so do the temporary residents of the Overlook Hotel), but instead of Argento’s lurid palette we get pallid, fluorescent-lit interiors and, outside, a bleak and gray winter. (The film’s original title was February, which is probably more appropriate for a movie that foregrounds setting and atmosphere over jump scares.)
It’s such a strange little film. Much of its eeriness comes from the acting, pitched on some kind of Lynchian register, where the affect — especially that of Kat’s, played by Kiernan Shipka — is just so slightly off. Even ordinary dialogue has a whiff of the sinister about it, because the audience has been primed throughout into a state of psychological wariness. The narrative, too, flits dissociatively between memory and dream, contributing to the overall feeling of things out of joint.
The film won’t be for everyone. It’s the slowest of slow burns, and any horror fan hoping for a roller coaster ride would be disappointed. The soundtrack (from Perkins’ brother, Elvis; also son of Anthony, as it turns out) relies maybe too heavily on music cues (atonal violins; that favorite ambient rumble, becoming louder and louder). And a little warning: The Blackcoat’s Daughter also features a staggeringly huge bit of audience misdirection, which would make or break the film in less careful hands.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter at its heart is an exploration of abandonment and loss, and the delusions engendered by grief. But that’s not to ward off horror fans: it’s not “just” a psychological thriller like, say, Repulsion; the film sparingly deploys its straight-up horror-movie elements to great effect. This is only Perkins’ debut film, and I look forward to the rest. (I see his second, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016), is currently streaming on Netflix.)