Satanic horror films are certainly never in short supply. There are always going to be folks that don’t care for a masked killer, but bring a demon into the mix? Well, then it’s the most horrifying thing ever. It’s the horror people have been cowering in fear from for decades now. The genre really doesn’t do much for me, though. Other than classics The Exorcist and The Omen, a lot of films dealing with the devil usually come off as too silly and over the top, ripping off aspects of these classic films, devaluing them to mere clichés. Rarely is the subgenre ever handled with any subtlety.

In The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it’s time for spring break! Woohoo! As all of the students at a Catholic boarding school head home for the week, two students, Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Katherine (Kieran Shipka), are left to shack up in school when their parents don’t arrive. After Rose puts thoughts of the staff being devil worshipers into Katherine’s head, Katherine begins acting a bit strange herself. As the days go on, Katherine displays more and more bizarre, and unsettling, behavior. Meanwhile, drifter Joan (Emma Roberts) hitches a ride with a couple of grieving parents driving across the state to visit their dead daughter’s grave.

One of my favorite things about horror films is the constant sense of dread it can make you feel. Nothing feels worse than impending doom. Always thinking you’re being watched, or something isn’t what it may seem. There’s no safe place. First time writer/director Oz Perkins does a fantastic job of injecting you with that feeling at all times. The cinematography is haunting, but also beautiful. Pristine white snow and pitch black shadows with all of the deep red blood in between are all captured in brilliant detail. Dark hallways and a sense of isolation are used to great effect, making me feel increasingly uneased. I was actually creeped out, with some of the eerie imagery actually sticking with me, and probably will for quite some time. It’s no slouch in the violence department either, being viscerally grotesque at times, but never gratuitous. You feel the brutality and can’t help but be shocked. Demonic possession films rarely scare me, but this one actually worked, mostly because it handled the material in a very subtle way.

While I was consistently creeped and weirded out, I felt that a lot of my enjoyment was hampered by the somewhat incoherency of the story. Perkins uses an interesting structure, telling the story from the perspectives of three different characters. Without going into spoilers, it’s hard to explain why the format didn’t really work for me. As much as I was loving the atmosphere and dreadful vibe, I couldn’t help but be confused most of the time. The film jumps around from character to character a bit too often, using the pieces of their stories to fill in the greater puzzle. While I enjoyed figuring out the mystery along the way, I felt the way the film chose to divulge information somewhat confusing. However, when the story fully comes together and I understood what Perkins was going for, I was actually quite fascinated. I just wish it could have been done a bit more coherently. The choppy editing and inconsistent pacing didn’t help matters much either.

Due to this, I felt the characters didn’t get the necessary development they needed for some aspects to have the impact required. All of the actors do a wonderful job, though, giving their characters a bit of depth. I’ve always liked Emma Roberts, especially in horror films, as she has a perfect cold and calculating demeanor, but showing true human emotion when she needs to. Kiernan Shipka, who has already proven herself to be a fantastic actress on Mad Men, steals every scene she’s in, turning in a terrifyingly mesmerizing performance. I found the best characters to be the grieving parents, played by James Remar and Lauren Holly (who gets to deliver a gripping monologue). You could really empathize with their pain and points of view, their earnestness making the subsequent events feel that much crueler. Everyone is a great example on how fantastic performances can elevate the proceedings and make things more engrossing.

Incoherency aside, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a rather impressive horror debut from writer/director Oz Perkins. The guy knows how to handle horror in all of the right ways, building up tension with eerie cinematography, a wonderfully creepy score, and a great sense of mystery. We’ve seen plenty of films dealing with Catholic kids, devil worship, and demonic possession, but Perkins did something a bit more unique with it, rarely relying on clichés. While it didn’t always work on a narrative level, it 100% worked on a visceral horror one. I’m eager to see what he does next.


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