Thursday, July 13, 2017

Satan Prefers Blondes: Minimalism in The Blackcoat's Daughter

by Cass Cannon
At the center of much demonic lore sits the prize sheep of purity; she is young and blonde, usually early in puberty but on the brink of her first sexual encounter, and traditionally attractive. In fact, she is perfect; irresistible, even. This obsession with the canonization and demonization of young women is as old as lore itself. We watch this archetypical young woman get torn up, consumed, and violated—all the while admiring her gentle grace and young naivete. She is what we are all taught to fear—purity losing itself to darkness.

Countless films play with this theme and countless more bring nothing new to the idea. A lot of horror movies try to reinvent classics; play with things that go bump in the much so that they almost end up parodying the often simple aspects of horror movies that have the power to make skin crawl. The last couple of years, however, we’ve been blessed with films—Darling, The Babadook, and The Invitation all come to mind—that function as a love story to horror, while not trying too hard to reinvent originals. What these movies have in common, above anything else, is that they all manage to keep us in a state of hypersensitivity. The audience is so used to seeing the big reveal that when we don’t get it, we’re kept in that state of wanting, of expecting the worst, and of hoping to get scared. Ultimately, we don’t get the release of a singular, scary moment and are left chewing that feeling long after the film is over.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter was met with pretty ambivalent reviews, something I was pretty surprised to see after watching. Half say the film is painfully slow and doesn’t reward the viewer any entertainment. The other half raves about the film’s genius. They argue, chaos ensues, and I get sucked into reading one cinematic comment flame war after another. But, for whatever reason, I’m becoming more and more drawn to movies that have an even split of positive and negative reviews—both parties, of course, have a passion I couldn’t replicate if I tried. The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, and many others fit into this single-sock drawer of difficult to organize feelings.

But, I’m not writing to prove anyone wrong. I’m writing because I loved this movie.

Eerie music—the real star of the movie—sets the scene. “Went to bed on an unclean head/the angels they forgot her” rings chillingly in freshman Kat’s bedroom as the camera creeps up from below her bed. Whether it’s a dream or reality, in this opening scene Kat is woken by a large, black coated figure, the head of whom is cropped out of frame. He then leads her to a wrecked vehicle, there’s blood on the windshield, “Daddy,” she asks “what happened?”

The glacial wintery setting further mutes the movie’s accessibility of information. It’s that special kind of silence after a snowstorm, the one where you feel you can hear for miles and yet you’re all alone in the same moment. It’s a very specific kind of eeriness that serves to amplify the character’s off-color actions. Against the quiet, Kat sticks out like a sore thumb. But what’s especially surprising here is we can’t tell why. There are no clues to who Kat, Rose, or Joan were before the movie picks up their narratives. Has Kat always been an outcast? Is there anything even wrong with her? It’s obvious that something isn’t right, but beyond a chilling mood, there’s not much we can sink a stake into. This bears the question, is it necessary to have a character’s backstory to empathize with them?

Now, I really don’t want to say that any of the three girls are props, because that carries with it a very specific connotation, but they definitely move about almost pawn-like. Joined by the coated figure, two nuns, and a less than fortunate pair of do-gooders, Kat, Rose, and Joan are vehicles through which we can ride the murkiness and begin to process.
One of the harshest criticisms of the film is that, while it’s full of visual flourish, the plot is too light to make them of any value. I think this the only point I’d like to take a stab at proving wrong. Boredom, lack of scariness, etc., are subjective and totally based on what you are typically drawn to in film. This critique, coming from one of the Roger Ebert writers, reads as empty. What The Blackcoat’s Daughter is doing is not superfluous beauty; instead it is beauty that taps into the cinematic vocabulary of older horror. How can one displace the viewer while using very limited special effects means? Architecture, light, framing, and (as mentioned before) music. Yes, it’s more work to consider these elements more than just atmosphere, but in the case of this movie, the pay-off is a really fun breed of entertainment.

The movie’s reliance on architecture as a disorienting device is exceptionally compelling. Doors flutter open and shut, the camera winds through, and the girls carry us through the labyrinthine school. With each passageway, the music builds and there are moments where the cinematography is almost 1st-person-shooter-like. I am an extremely feeling person; emotions are really my main tool in navigating literally any piece of art, so even though we only know one or two things about each of the characters, this visual perspective is one that put me very much in the shoes of whatever girl was on screen. To me, this isn’t lazy filmmaking or superfluous prettiness. It’s very sharp visual storytelling. Mood and emotion can tell us so much, and I think it’s impressive that The Blackcoat’s Daughter trusts the viewers as much as it does. It conjures similar vibes to Under the Skin or even 2001.
It is possible that this is yet another example of horror purism and its disdain for the genre’s inevitable evolution. And that’s fine, I suppose. Genres all have their unspoken rules and rhythms by which they tell stories; a romantic comedy always has a fight followed by a tender moment of reckoning, a science fiction movie usually ends in a question mark, and—allegedly—horror showcases ghoulies and creepies popping up and wreaking havoc. As much as I love and respect those guidelines, I’m excited for a generational shift toward psychological angst. We see horror every day in the news. We see it, but we can’t feel it. And that’s what this movie does. The Blackcoat’s Daughter makes us feel the horror.


  1. Well, now that you compared it with Under The Skin, i have to see it

  2. My two favorite Horror films from last year were The Witch and February*, both very similar in tone. Where February shines is much of what you describe in this excellent article. The snowy silence of the Canadian landscape in where it was shot, the perfect choices for the on location set pieces, the amazingly haunting (and gorgeous score by the director's brother, Elvis Perkins) the subtle yet intricate story line in which things unravel like a perfectly arranged piece of music and the excellent performances by all involved.

    The first 20 minutes really set the tone: the grinding cello set to a snowy dream, the meeting with the headmaster, the school picture shoot then cut to the slow zoom-in crane shot outside of the school then cut to our lead playing "In the Garden" which contain such incredible lyrics and is actually giving insight to what is going on or going to go on. There's a scene during that where she pauses after singing "into the black night" and gazes into the audience where we notice two empty seats, presumably where her parents were supposed to have been sitting. I believe that in that one to two seconds, she realizes she is completely alone now and the "transition" is beginning.

    I've seen February 6 times since last year and every time I watch it and she utters "don't go" I get chills or almost start weeping like a child. I have the score on vinyl and have played it in my living room LOUD and am always left inspired to go work on music after listening. I'm really glad you loved it, Cass!

    *the title Blackcoat's Daughter makes no sense and I will forever be a snob and refer to it as "February". Read it from Oz himself and when he explains how he ended up using "Blackcoat's Daughter" it's nonsense, but, he's trying to be nice:

    "For me, with the [original] title of February, I was going for the idea that a time can also be a location. In other words, you can re-visit a time of year, in the same way you can go back to a house that you used to live in. A certain month or a certain season can elicit a certain emotional response. That’s certainly true for anyone who has a negative anniversary on their calendar—the approach of that month brings the feeling of being very much back in another room. It’s a time that stands outside the rest of the year. So that’s where the title of February came from.

    When the movie was bought by A24 to be distributed, I think they wanted a title that indicated the genre a little more strongly. I didn’t accept the alternate titles they were putting forth, so I went through [the film]. And I had a lot of suggestions, but I sort of landed on The Blackcoat’s Daughter. It’s a verse from this rhyme [for which] my brother Elvis wrote the music, and we used it as an incantation at the beginning and at the end of the movie: “Beetle beetle, blackcoat’s daughter, what was in the holy water?” I really liked the word “daughter,” and Elvis and I decided that maybe the backcoat’s daughter was a priest’s daughter. In any case, it worked for a priest, it worked for the devil, it worked for a father, it had the quality of a child raised by this strange black coat. It felt sexy enough."

  3. I was just debating whether to watch Life (2017) or The Blackcoat's Daughter. I want to read this, so that helps make up my mind!

    1. Good choice, thought I might be the only one that liked Life. It's REALLY DUMB but it's a better alien movie than Alien: Covenant.

    2. I was pleasantly surprised by Life. But I am a sucker for any kind of space horror. The last shot is pretty amazing.

  4. Man. I think knowing the old name would have been even better--what a beautiful and well captured notion, that a time can be a place. It perfectly encapsulates the coldest month of winter's whole vibe.

    I remember you originally suggested this movie to me, thinking it was up my alley (correct) and I love this extra information that makes the movie even better!

    1. Really happy you responded to it as much as I did!

  5. Great article Cass. The score for this movie was amazing, and was the highlight for me. Like the imagery and pacing of the movie, the music was spare but intense.