The most frightening thing about "The Blackcoat's Daughter" isn't the intense violence late in the film, but rather the despondence from which it flows.
The debut film of director Oz Perkins (previously best known for a small role in "Legally Blonde" and for being the son of "Psycho's" Anthony Perkins) is receiving a belated video-on-demand release with a new title (replacing the more evocative "February") two years after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere and a good six months after the release of his second feature, the creepy "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House." That delay, however, shouldn't give pause, as "The Blackcoat's Daughter" confirms Perkins as one of the most exciting horror filmmakers to emerge in recent memory, a singular sensibility whose unique sense of melancholy makes the pervasive dread all the more unnerving.
Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper on "Mad Men") stars as Katharine, a withdrawn freshman at an all-girls Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. When Katharine's parents fail to collect her for break, she's left alone at the school with two nuns and the older, more popular student Rose (Lucy Boynton), who fears she may be pregnant. Meanwhile, Joan (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) hitches a ride with a grieving couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) to the school for unknown reasons.
As in "Pretty Thing," Perkins enjoys moving at a deliberate pace and keeping us in the dark as to what's going on and who, exactly, is a threat to who. There's a bizarre wooziness to the way he shoots Katharine and Rose in the school halls, at once dreamy and eerie, that makes us feel like we're in a daze before Katharine's behavior becomes stranger and some of the creepier aspects of the school (the satanic glow of the boiler room, the desolate outdoor locations) are foregrounded.
The director takes cues from classic horror films (most notably "Rosemary's Baby"), but the rhythm and tone is different, getting the same pervasive dread without feeling familiar. The sense of everything being just slightly off is compounded by Perkins jumping timelines, often going back to an event from a second perspective that calls into question what we saw before (and that's before the two storylines converge).
Where "Pretty Thing" was largely a solo showcase for Ruth Wilson's spectacular off-kilter performance, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" gives all five principals their moments to shine. Boynton makes for an immensely sympathetic (if not always kind) audience surrogate, while Remar walks a fine line between kindness and ambiguous menace with the haunted Roberts and icier Holly.
The film takes most of its cues, however, from Shipka, one of the most talented child actors to emerge since the heyday of Haley Joel Osment. Shipka's less precocious and more sad-eyed here than on "Mad Men," clearly alone in the world even discounting her parents' absence. Her only real, open interactions are with a friendly priest early in the film, and she spends much of the first half failing to connect with others. Still, there's something strange about her early on — she smiles at nothing and without realizing she's doing it, she stares for just a little too long, and there's a slightly detached tone to even her friendliest line readings. By the time the all-out horror starts up, we're as frightened for her as we are of her.
That's a feeling that comes from Perkins choice to ground human and spiritual failure in loneliness. Where in "Pretty Thing" he depicted a lonely soul who acknowledged she was doomed to death in the opening narration, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" sees people doomed to death, grief and damnation out of desperate choices, the scariest figure most of all. By the time the film reaches its extended final closeup, there's an overwhelming sense of isolation, and of how much worse it is than even the worst company.
"The Blackcoat's Daughter" is available on video on demand services such as iTunes, Amazon and YouTube for $6.99, and on DirecTV.