Monday, July 8, 2019

The Blackcoat's Daughter (Osgood Perkins)

In a sense, both cover photos spoil quite a bit of the movie.

The Blackcoat's Daughter, Oz Perkins directorial debut, is a horror film from 2015—often described as being a slow-burn film.  Unfortunately, the trailer presents the film as a bit of a character-driven drama with an eerie horror atmosphere that is slowly revealed, but it's, indeed, a somewhat tedious and VERY slow-burn horror film that takes a semi-gruesome turn toward the end and revisits a pretty standard exorcism/possession storyline (even has a puke scene and profanity, like the Exorcist). The only difference here is that, unlike most horror films, it has a non-linear plot and more artistic pretensions than usual for the genre.

Quite a few of these tracks likely don't work so well outside of the film, as with most OSTs.

The score/sound design is excellent, though sometimes a little overused to make a scene mysterious or ominous when there is really very little going on. Many instances would have benefitted from either silence or a more neutral ambience. The theme song is nice enough and has an antiquated sound to it, and, additionally, Kat's song is rather cute.  

The cinematography, primarily of dimly lit interiors and wintry landscapes, is competent enough, though the shots are mostly static and not terribly creative or using many interesting angles. There are very few camera movements (I only remember a pan that's used to imply the presence of the devil). The color grading is somber and largely using cold tones, though there are some warmer interior lights or ambient lighting. It's very gray and bleak, for the most part. A few of the darker scenes are perhaps a little under lit. 

The plot summary, "Two girls must battle a mysterious evil force when they get left behind at their boarding school over winter break.", is rather vague, misleading, and not terribly correct. 

The story centers around two girls—Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) who are attending a girls' boarding school, though a third character is revealed, named Joan (Emma Roberts), whose story ties in with the other two. 

I'll go ahead and summarize the film in a linear fashion, since I'd like to talk about some of the more important scenes, and the movie can be somewhat confusing when told non-linearly: 

Kat experiences a strange vision involving her parent's arriving to pick her up. It's not clear if this happened in the past, recently, or was just a dream. Her father is shown, but we never see his face. Her mother appears to be dead, and the car is a mangled wreck. 

On the calendar she indicates the day her parents will arrive with a heart. She's been marking each subsequent day with an X, counting down till the fateful day. The music is ominous. 

She speaks with the headmaster, whom she desperately wishes to please with her singing performance during the talent show, but he is unable to attend. It's a very strange conversation.

Rose lies to her parents with the intention of them showing up late. The reason involves her pregnancy and relationship with her boyfriend.

All of the girls are picked up to go on break, except for Kat and Rose, who are left to wait with the two nuns for their parents to arrive.

Though the amount of time Kat is shown interacting with people is limited, it is clear that she is an awkward, lonely girl who probably doesn't have any friends, and many difficulties socializing. Being that this is a film about possession, it could be suggested she might also be mentally ill, seeing as mental illnesses were sometimes misinterpreted as possession, and the latter is often used as a metaphor for illness. Of course, her estrangement and loneliness is probably not developed strongly enough. Without paying close attention, she seems more eccentric than she does lonely.

Rose acts as a foil for Kat. She is seen interacting with a friend early on, has a boyfriend, and is confident.

Rose is supposed to look after Kat, but she instead rebuffs her, heading out with her boyfriend, which is against the rules.  

It must be said that this is a film that would benefit tremendously from fleshed out characters. There's minimal characterization or development. Many horror films can get away with flat characters, but not this one. These characters are shallow, and because they're shallow, the film, which relies on emotional scenes at various points, and an ending that should be disturbing and sad, is rendered as shallow and soulless. Yes, there are scenes meant to be emotional, but the idiosyncratic structure and flat characters will likely fail to evoke such feelings with anyone. 

It could be argued that the creators meant for a certain alienation or detachment, but it's not particularly effective here. 

Rose tells Kat the two nuns are worshippers of the devil.

Soon after Rose returns and looks for Kat. She finds her bowing in front of the furnace as if she were worshipping a deity. She escorts Kat back to her room. This is the point in the film where Kat becomes even stranger. Telling Rose she "smells pretty" in a very creepy fashion, and declaring that her parents are dead (Just Kat's, presumably), which harks back to the apparent dream sequence Kat had at the beginning. She also tells Rose, "You had your chance." with ominous undertones.

It's not clear if Kat was possessed from the beginning, but the demonic entity was mostly dormant, emerging gradually, or if she did something at this point to make a pact with the demon, thus, becoming possessed. But what she says in her unanswered phone call to her parents prior to this scene suggests the demon either was not possessing her or was dormant until now. Eventually the scene where Rose mentions the nuns being devil worshippers is used again toward the end, from Kat's perspective, where the words are distorted, and a silhouettes of a horned demon is shown. This could imply she's already possessed, but it might also simply be that she was "fighting with the demon" and when Rose shuns her at that point, she submits to the demon.

From this point on, Kat's behavior becomes unruly. She calls one of the nuns a cunt, laughs during the lord's prayer, and vomits on the table. She communicates on the phone with another demonic-sounding voice in several scenes, and even contorts her body in the cliche fashion of so many other possession films.

She brutally murders Rose and the two nuns, placing their heads before the furnace like trophies.

Father Gordon arrives to investigate along with a cop, who shoots Kat.

Kat is placed in a mental institution where Father Brian exorcises the demon (the demon is pictured in this scene, and is shown via reflection in a few other scenes.

9 years later, Joan, who is actually Kat, but played by a different actress, pulls off her hospital wristband. She meets Bill (James Remar), an older man, and his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), both of whom she hitches a ride with. She learns that their daughter was killed 9 years ago, and it's revealed to be Rose. Her name Joan was taken from a nurse she killed. The shower scene also shows a bullet wound on her shoulder.

Kat wants to revisit the boarding school, and Bill and Linda are visiting Rose's grave. She kills them along the way and offers their severed heads to the demon who is associated with the furnace. 

The demon is gone, and she cries while the camera lingers on her face. 

Obviously the film does work better when told in a non-linear style. it's more mysterious and reveals information gradually, allowing for a few surprises.

What's the point of the ending? It's somewhat of a unique spin on the possession genre from what I've seen. Since she's presented as lonely in the opening scenes, she finds a way to abate that loneliness by turning to a demon or the devil. She can't seem to depend on anyone, but she can depend on the demon. Her first sacrifice was an offering to the demon. She was ecstatic during the process. Now that the demon has been exorcized, she is again alone. The sacrifice is meant to reacquaint her with the demon. But nothing happens. Her murder served no purpose, and the demon is gone. Therefore, she is returned to her original state of loneliness, and being that she is a damaged individual, this was probably her only chance for any sort of companionship or purpose. 

The way Kat and Rose's parents meet is rather ridiculous and contrived. It's suggested that she may have found them because of the demon's influence (unlikely since it's implied that the demon is gone by the scene of exorcism and the ending). Bill is a religious man and seeing her was, to him, a sign. He also says she looks like Rose (she doesn't). 

This suggests a sort of interconnectedness or that events inherently have meaning. Perhaps a showing of determinism. Everything is ordered and has a reason for occurring. Granted, it mostly just feels like sloppy writing with Bill randomly finding Kat at a bus stop.

It's a Manichaean scenario of sorts, with a distinct interplay of causes and effects. There's never an overt showing of God or the demon being real. The exorcism occurs, Kat becomes more deranged, and the demon is shown. But no character actually sees the demon other than the audience and Kat. Arguably this film could be about mental illness, a combination of mental illness and the supernatural, or only the supernatural.

Personally I get sick of the supernatural being used as a metaphor for mental illness. Either the exorcism got rid of her demon. Or medication kept her illness under control. She's likely not taking any medication since her escape. The kind of mental illnesses that would manifest her strange behavior typically require long-term treatment with medication. Meaning if you stop using the medication, then the effects return. This makes the ending absolutely pointless or wasn't well thought out. A successful exorcism means the demon is permanently gone, which has a greater impact for the ending. It could also be argued that there was no demon, but the exorcism had such a great psychological impact on Kat that what she believed possessed her appeared to be gone—a type of placebo effect.

It seems that the events of the film are set in motion with Kat and Rose's first interaction. Yes, Kat is disappointed by the headmaster not being there for her, and she has anxiety about her parents not arriving, soon believing them to be dead. But it's not until Rose lightly mocks her and leaves her behind that Kat is seen bowing before the red-hot furnace like some hellish altar. By saying to Rose "You had your chance", it implies that they could have been friends, but now Kat has made an allegiance with the demon, and Rose, along with other humans, are mere fodder.

Rose could have stopped Kat from descending the terrible depths that she did. It resembles a morality play. Though it's also rendered quite absurd because that was her first encounter with Rose, who wasn't terribly mean to her. It couldn't have lasted more than five minutes. It would have been more effective had Rose and Kat spent more time together. Rose was also quite kind on the second encounter, when Kat dismissed her.

Rose was also being naughty herself by sneaking off and having pre-marital sex and getting pregnant. Sex and death are usually linked in horror movies, so it's not surprising she ends up dead, if we're going with the old horror cliches. This behavior is of course frowned upon from a religious standpoint—this was a—I think—Catholic boarding school, and her father is strongly religious as well. Actually, it should be frowned upon by any parent, religious or not, since this behavior usually leads to negative outcomes. Rose was portrayed as essentially pleasure-seeking and self-centered. So I think this, along with a lot of the old slashers, tend to have a pretty conservative perspective.

Bill says he sees God in Kat (he's probably missing a few marbles, to be fair), and this could be seen as a possibility of redemption for her, but she rejects it. Human behavior is often intractable, after all. Drug users continue to use drugs until they overdose or waste away or become homeless. Criminals recidivate. It's an endless chain of cause and effect, until there's a strong enough impasse at the right time to promote new behavior. And that has to be maintained or it's right back to the old behavior. And sometimes it's just too late.

Final verdict: A decent first effort for a horror film. It's sufficiently competent, but it suffers because of weak characters and a meandering script, and while a slow film focusing on atmosphere can be nice, it can very easily become shallow or an exercise in style over substance. This film doesn't have the incredible style and atmosphere of something like Suspiria, so it's more difficult to overlook its obvious faults. 3/10.

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