THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER is a strikingly original horror tale told with an eerie and elegant style. The polished visuals, as chilly as the winter in which they take place, though, provide an unsettling framework for the visceral suspense of an ordered world falling quietly apart. It’s augmented with a sound design that is, against all reason, both subtle and assertive. An atonal score, which serves as a Greek chorus of foreboding and dénouement, becomes symbiotic with a sound design that drives straight into the id as it twists our primal fears about sanity and safety without mercy.
Set in an elite, all-girl boarding school, it gives us Kat (Kiernan Shipka) receiving a visitation, or perhaps it’s just a nightmare, about the gruesome death of her parents as they drove through the snow to bring her home for the winter break. The uncertainty of Kat’s exact circumstance, madness or possession, is tantalizing, as is the way she slips so comfortably into another reality. Shipka’s cool assurance in a persona that is just off-kilter enough to arouse empathy for the oddball freshman, but not concern, is masterful. The vague smile that slips into a smirk, the undercurrent of secrecy, that grows more pronounced, studded with non-sequiturs and stares into space that are anything but blank.
When her parents, in fact, fail to appear as the break begins, she is put in the care not of the unctuous caretakers (Elena Krausz, Heather Tod Mitchell) who seem to be from another time and place, but that of a grudging upperclassman, Rose (Lucy Boynton), the only other student stranded at the school. It’s a stranding of her own making, having deliberately told her parents the wrong day to come fetch her, thereby giving her a night alone to break some bad news to her boyfriend. Alone in the dorm, door creak, floors squeak, and the radiator hisses with malicious intent. But is it just an old building settling? And is that Kat’s voice that Rose hears in the hissing? The hissing that echoes the static Kat hears on the phone when she calls home in the hope of finding her parents, only to be greeted by a sinister voice promising her a home if she will just do a few favors for him.
Elsewhere, and on her way to the school, is Joan (Emma Roberts). Withdrawn, but determined despite suffering disturbing flashbacks, she is stranded in the winter cold when she finds shelter with a couple (James Remar, Lauren Holly) going in the same direction. The husband explains that he finds God in coincidences, and that Joan looks like his daughter is a coincidence he can’t ignore. Yet this part of the narrative is not without its own dissonant overtones. Bill walking into the hotel room he’s given Joan, talking to her with genuine warmth and sincerity as Joan sits on the bed wrapped only in a towel. Joan letting him in when he knocks. The talk of God amid cues for a more sordid interlude creates its own sort of tension, as does the way Joan later instinctively reaches for a knife when she sees a cop.
THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER uses the impotence of institutions, secular and religious, to protect the innocent from trauma to explore the temptation, even seduction, of evil. Never routine, exquisitely savage, it is an artfully disquieting experience terrifying in both innuendo and flashing blade.