Knives are the weapon of choice in the dread-soaked horror film The Blackcoat's Daughter, and for debut director Osgood Perkins, that's a prime example of steering into the skid. Perkins' father is the late Anthony Perkins, who wielded the most famous knife in film history as Norman Bates in Psycho, and he seems determined to carry that same horror classicism into the 21st century. Along with his superb follow-up I Am the Pretty Girl Who Lives in the House — which premiered on Netflix last year — the film feels determinedly old-fashioned, awash in a hypnotic ambience that's only occasionally punctured by violence. Like his father, Perkins makes his jolts count.
If anything, The Blackcoat's Daughter (which played festivals under the substantially less evocative title February) plays it too coy for too long, establishing a mood without much in the way of action or follow-through. For a first-time director, Perkins shows remarkable confidence in building his unsettling premise on enigmas and ellipses, essentially deferring the answers to all questions until the final act. When the twists finally arrive, they're not surprising in and of themselves — the signs are not hidden well enough in plain sight — but the shocks sting hard, like a coiled snake that's been waiting patiently in the underbrush.
When a prestigious Catholic boarding school for girls lets out for winter break, two students are left behind because their parents either forgot to pick them up or were delayed by snowstorms. (Or, perhaps, there's a third and more nefarious explanation.) Channeling much of the enigmatic power she brought to Sally Draper on Mad Men, Kieran Shipka plays Kat, a quiet freshman who appears disturbed by some unknown specter, but doesn't articulate what. The other student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), does more of the talking, but as an upperclass mean-girl type, she doesn't take that keen an interest in Kat.
Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Joan (Emma Roberts) is hitchhiking her way toward campus, driven by a couple of grieving parents (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who may have ulterior motives. A band on Joan's wrists suggests that she's earned a recent and likely unauthorized release from the hospital, but it's unclear what her relationship is to the school and why she's traveling there when it's out of session.
In both the Kat/Rose thread and the Joan/grieving parents thread, the tension comes from wondering who's the threat and who's the threatened, or if there's some external force that's bearing down on them. Then there's the additional question of how these threads will intertwine once Joan finally reaches her destination. Perkins pulls off one genuine structural surprise, but the strength of The Blackcoat's Daughter lies in its stately evocation of the occult, which brings it in line with the retro-1980s Satanic horror of Ti West's The House of the Devil. His cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood, works in wintery hues that render the outdoors a permanent slate-gray and the interiors so dim that the characters (and the audience) have to squint through it. The score, by his brother Elvis, works in the lower registers, with occasional shrieks of violin poking through an ambient bed of heebie-jeebies.
At worst, The Blackcoat's Daughter plays like a throat-clearing exercise for a horror prodigy, a minor attempt to class up a demon possession subgenre that's only gotten grosser and more extreme since The Exorcist. But within those narrow parameters, Perkins captures the intense feelings of loneliness and alienation that make these young women vulnerable to menace. On a campus virtually without students, swathed in snow and darkness, there almost doesn't have to be an evil presence to make life seem oppressive for the girls who are left behind. Here, Satan can seem like a friend.