Editor's Note: The following contains spoilers for The Blackcoat's DaughterThe Blackcoat’s Daughter didn’t get the audience it deserved when it was first released. Legally Blonde’s “Dorky David” himself, Osgood Perkins, crafted a terrifying modern horror film that sat on the shelf for a year and a half after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Eventually picked up in joint distribution by A24 and DirecTV, The Blackcoat’s Daughter went virtually unpromoted during its rollout on DirecTV’s pay-per-view service and a very limited theatrical release. Thankfully, word-of-mouth eventually spread among horror buffs, and more viewers were exposed to the film’s fascinating supernatural mysteries.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter explores how the dehumanizing impacts of isolation and religious oppression torment a trio of adolescent girls. Each attend Bramford Academy, a private upper class New York Catholic Boarding School. The young scholars are left to their own devices and are abandoned by their educational superiors when no parents come to pick them up during a week-long break from classes during the chilly winter. Each of the girls encounter strange and shocking dangers when they’re abandoned, but the ending may confuse some viewers as to how their paths line up.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter unfolds across three separate storylines from the perspectives of each of the characters. While they appear to be occurring simultaneously due to the film’s intercut editing, each perspective explores a different point in the timeline that leads into the other section. Although it's the last storyline in the film’s runtime, the segment following the freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is the first chronologically. In the week ahead of their winter break, Kat experiences sinister phone calls from a demonic voice and suffers from frightening premonitions of her parents’ impending death. She’s sharply commanded by the threatening voice to kill those that are left behind, and her terror escalates when her hushed caretakers confirm that her parents did indeed perish in an unexplained occurrence. Kat grows isolated, and doesn’t confide her visions to the nuns who live full time at the Academy.
In the segment that appears first, Kat and senior student Rose (Lucy Boynton) are forced to become roommates as they watch their classmates leave with their respective guardians. Their only company are the nuns, but Rose also has her reasons for staying put. Rose fears that she’s pregnant and gave her parents the wrong dates for holiday break in order to avoid their potential wrath and find a solution. Rose mostly ignores her peculiar young classmate, briefly eluding her in order to make plans with her boyfriend Rick (Peter Gray) and tell him about the unexpected pregnancy.
In the meantime, Kat’s connection with the demonic horned beast haunting her dreams grows stronger. She lies on the floor of a boiler room hoping to reach the creature when Rose returns from the conversation with Rick. Kat’s only explanation to Rose’s frantic questioning is that she’s been left alone because her parents are dead. Rose is unnerved by her roommate’s ominous behavior, particularly as Kat’s dreams cause her to violently shriek and writhe in her sleep. Kat’s strength diminishes as she succumbs to the suggestions of her demonic tormentor.
After Kat has an abrupt outburst during the girls’ breakfast with the nuns, Rose is ordered to shovel a snowy driveway as Headmaster Gordon (Peter James Haworth) returns to the academy and the nuns desperately try to deal with the situation. In Rose’s absence, Kat finally fulfils the commands of the horned creature and kills the two nuns that joined them at breakfast. She tracks Rose outside and chases her throughout the building, eventually stabbing her to death. The tragic irony is that as she’s pursued, Rose has her period; she was not pregnant, and didn’t have to fear going home at all. Kat beheads her nonetheless, in a scene that Gordon discovers upon his arrival.
Gordon gathers the police to search the building, and they find Kat in an increased state of madness. Kat now openly worships Satan and surrounds herself with the three decapitated heads of her victims in an ominous ritual. She’s eventually subdued after the police shoot her, and confined to an isolated cell in a mental hospital. Although an attempted exorcism is performed, Kat can’t let go of her connection with the figure in her hallucinations. Following the exorcism, she pleads for the only presence that’s ever talked to her to stay with her.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is cut between the duelling perspectives of Kat and Rose, and it may seem more confusing due to the additional segments featuring a third girl Joan (Emma Roberts). While it appears that Joan’s exploits are occurring at the same time, they actually take place nine years later. “Joan” is not her real name; Joan is an older Kat, who took on a fake name after escaping the mental institution and murdering a woman, stealing her identity and name.
After her escape, Joan drifts alone in the snowy weather when the older couple Bill (James Remar) and Linda (Lauren Holly) offer her a ride back to the academy. When they invite Joan to their quiet home, Bill and Linda are revealed to be Rose’s parents through family pictures. Mourning the anniversary of their daughter’s death, they promise to return to Bramford, as they do every year as a tribute to their departed child. Joan sees this as the opportunity that she’s been waiting for, as she’s searched for a path back to Bramford in order to unite with the demon in the boiler room. Upon their arrival, she murders and beheads Bill and Linda, just as she did their daughter nearly a decade prior. The ultimate tragic irony is that upon wandering through the halls of the abandoned school, Joan finds that the boiler room is now inactive and she will be unable to use it to contact the demon. Once again, she’s left completely alone. Her bitter tears conclude the tragic film.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter analyzes the impact that abandonment has on the psyche. Kat isn’t given any guidance from her classmates, caretakers, or educators, and she’s forced to deal with the possessive forces without anyone to guide her. Not only does Kat’s solitude make her susceptible to the influence of evil, but it forces her to bond with it. Even if Kat doesn’t understand what her responsibilities are or what the spirit will do to her body and consciousness, she’s drawn back to her abuser as she grows older. Although not as extreme, Rose’s fears about confronting her parents force her to inadvertently put herself in harm’s way. The seemingly joyous memories that Joan discovers in her parents’ home depict happy family memories that Rose never shared with Kat. In her time of crisis following the suspected pregnancy, Rose explains to Rick that her parents offer her no solace.
The twisty narrative of The Blackcoat’s Daughter intertwines this commentary on how the boarding school’s suppressive practices force these girls to lose their identities when they’re literally cut off from interactions. The creeping tension is exemplified by Perkins’s emphasis on stark, menacing visuals that hint at the secrets hidden within the halls of the learning environment. It’s a spooky, tightly wound debut feature from Perkins, who returned to the horror genre with the dark fantasy Gretel & Hansel. Although initially disorienting with its nonlinear narrative, it's a mystery where the internal logic checks out.