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 night...so 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.
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.
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.