Much respect to A24 Films for bringing new kinds of horror narratives to audiences—especially ones focused on female experiences. Their latest, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, fits right into a lineage already populated with Life After Beth, The Monster, and The Witch, and its trio of actresses build believable, impressive suspense. But the tension the movie creates is unmatched by its underdeveloped plot, which relies on a big reveal that is disappointingly obvious.
The movie begins at Bramford, a remote girls’ boarding school in upstate New York, where winter break is just around the corner and the students are preparing for an end-of-year performance that their parents will attend before they go home for vacation. Nearly everyone is excited to escape this dingy, dark facility for a while, to get away from the dirty snow, the plethora of crosses, and the desolate atmosphere. But two girls don’t seem quite so happy at the idea of leaving: freshman Katherine (Kiernan Shipka) and upperclassman Rose (Lucy Boynton).
Each of the girls seems to be hiding something from the people closest to them. Rose, who fears she might be pregnant, is afraid to face the reality that she might be expecting with a boyfriend who automatically assumes that she’ll be getting an abortion; Katherine, plagued by nightmares of something terrible happening to her parents, is afraid to share the visions that are disturbing and haunting her. When the two end up alone together at school over the break, the headmaster tasks Rose with taking care of the younger Katherine—but something about the latter girl gives Rose, who tries to scare her with talk of devil worshipers and warns her to stay away from Rose's bedroom, the creeps.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter then cuts to another storyline, this one focused on Joan (Emma Roberts), a young woman we meet trying to rip off her hospital bracelet in a bus station bathroom. She keeps having flashbacks to some kind of mental institution—masked men hovering above her, nurses handing her pills—but she’s determined to get to Bramford, too. Her motives for going to the school aren’t shared, even after she gets picked up by middle-aged married couple Bill (James Remar) and Linda (Lauren Holly), who agree to take her there. But they’re talking in riddles and secrets to each other, too, like when Bill asks Joan if she believes in God. Her answer is no, but Bill won’t let it go—raising the question of whether he can be trusted or if he’s just another man trying to tell Joan what to do.
How these two storylines link up is the main twist of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and it’s a little disappointing how easily the movie gives the big reveal away early on; the action moves so slowly that you can’t help but pay attention to every little thing, and the clues can’t be ignored. That saps the movie of some of its forward momentum, which is already languid to begin with; things only really ratchet up in the final half-hour.
Nevertheless, there are creepy moments throughout that really add to the stylistic, haunted-house atmosphere of this whole narrative: the silhouette of a being lurking the hallways of the school; a giggle from Joan at a moment of horrendous pain for Bill and Linda; Rose tip-toeing to the boiler room as she follows what sounds like children’s murmurs in the dead of the night.
Shipka has the showiest role, and she handles it gracefully. How she obviously spaces out of conversations with elders, refusing to make eye contact but maintaining a fake kind of pleasantness, brings to mind her excellent years as Sally Draper on Mad Men, and her face when she calls a nurse a “cunt” after vomiting at a breakfast table instead of leading a prayer is delightfully shocking. Boynton does well balancing the bitchier moments of her character with her teenage vulnerabilities, and Roberts effectively harnesses her usual blankness. The performances are strong throughout.
But still, The Blackcoat’s Daughter feels slight; the story needed more padding, more exploration into what happens to the girls, and a clearer distinction of what drives their motives to truly be distinctive. There are brief forays into the kind of behavior that makes teenage girls so unknowable to their elders and even their peers (a recurring use of mirror images and the word “pretty” gives us a glimpse into how these girls view themselves and how they want to be viewed), but the movie needed more of that to truly flesh out who these characters are. Shipka, Boynton, and Roberts give all they can to The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but the success of their performances isn’t enough.
RATING: 2.5 OUT OF 5 GUTTENBERGS