Fear is an open-ended question, and perhaps one of the essential fears of childhood is parental abandonment. Oz Perkins’s film The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) describes both a spiritual and emotional type of abandonment. The movie begins at a girl’s Catholic school during holiday break. The atmosphere of the school is desolate, the snow of upstate New York as isolating as the drifts closing off Sidewinder from The Overlook Hotel. There’s a certain loneliness to empty buildings just as the ruins of a lost civilization can appear spooky; the psychology of architecture says that structures are meant to be inhabited.
That the film takes place at a Catholic school is important not only for its religious connotation, but literally because it is a school full of fathers and mothers. The movie opens with Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a freshman, sleeping and dreaming. A dark figure appears to wake her and then enters her dream, showing her a car crash. She walks with the figure in the frozen landscape, the person accompanying her is obscured by the camera, only broad shoulders and long dark scarf fall into frame. Kat cries for her mother as her parents car comes into view. The car is destroyed, the front end smashed, blood decorating the fender. The scene is a classic gothic trope. The dreamer and the dream has a long history in gothic tradition, of which this movie is heavily steeped. Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) which shows an erotic dreamscape and yet the presumed dreamer a young woman, passed out in her bedroom. Several nightmare figures stand perched over her, haunting her sleep. Fuseli invites us into the dream and shows us the dreamer, asking the question what exactly is the viewer seeing reality or nightmare. The first scenes of the movie ask the viewer something similar. Who is the dark figure and what relation does he or it have with Kat the sleeper, and Kat the dreamer. The camera flashes back and forth from Kat’s sleeping body to Kat in the nightmare. Laying on the bed, her hand raises up, her fingers dancing lightly, indicating the movement in a dream, as if her hand is being taken.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter frames its narrative via three girls. Kat, Joan (Emma Roberts), and Rose (Lucy Boynton). Each is given a title card and the narrative story follows how Kat and Rose’s story overlap as they wait for their parents to pick them up, while Joan’s story takes place a few towns over as she tries get back to the schools. There’s a centrifugal story of parenthood here. Kat feels abandoned, not only by her parents, who we suspect from the first scene of the movie have died in a car crash, but the head priest who in the following scene tells her that he won’t be able to attend her performance at the school talent show. There’s a clinical logic to how Kat questions the priest about his whereabouts, and the logistics of him coming back to attend her performance. She’s desperate for a parental figure and the scene describes a desire on the edge of obsession. Rose’s introduction is the slow motion walk to take her class picture. Similar to Kat’s earlier scene, this one takes on a dream quality freighted with meaning that’s not especially clear on first blush. Rose walks into frame and the camera pauses catching her at the exact moment the photographer snaps her picture. Later we know that picture will resonate, but at that moment it is only a vague marker of time.
Kat begins hearing strange voices along with her dream. The payphone rings in the hall and answering it she speaks to a mysterious voice. Leaving Kat alone in the deserted dorm, Rose meets her boyfriend. She’s afraid of being pregnant. The idea of motherhood frightens her. While Rose considers what it might mean to be a parent, she abandons Kat to the strange voices. There’s a string of signification here. Rose is maybe a prospective mother, but also an abandoned child and paradoxically someone who has abandoned a young woman.
The dorms have a strange pallor of white paint, corpse-like it masks any warmth and resembles Kat’s scenes outside in the snow. Coming back to the dorm, Rose notices that Kat has disappeared and wandering down to the basement finds her bowing to a radiator, the fiery grates looking like the flaming eyes of an idyll. There’s an anatomy of a horror shot, one that radiates tension and dread, using a still frame with something grotesque and horrible in the center shot from far away. One that Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter famously use this shot to disturb and horrify. Much like Kubrick’s famous scenes in The Shining of the little girls and perhaps more oddly, the men dressed as animals turning to acknowledge Shelley Duval’s intrusion. Carpenter uses this more sparingly, but to great effect in Halloween. Shot from a child’s viewpoint, we see Michael Myers walking, holding a victim’s body. Similar to the abandoned architecture of buildings, the largely still photograph is given a punch by its distance. How much less powerful would these shots be if the character watching were in frame? Like a painting come to life, the still photos slowly move, keeping the horror in the center ot the screen. The visual of Kat worshiping is such a strange moment it horrifies.
The narrative of the movie is shuffled. Kat is no longer the innocent youth being seduced by a mysterious voice, but an active participant in events. Kat and Rose’s story wraps up in blood and brutality, meeting expectations in an eerie way and yet surprising as well. The final scene with Kat is an exorcism and the priest we see at the beginning, an absentee father, performs the ritual. Oz Perkins directs the scene as both an exorcism, a much used trope and a parent’s desertion of a child. While the priest unfurls all the accoutrement of the ritual, Kat’s dark father slowly recedes, his presence winnowing away. The ceremony is successful and yet it doesn’t help Kat, but robs her of a figure that gave her gruesome clarity.
The time lapse in Joan’s story is important as the viewer slowly realizes she is the grown up Kat, a young woman still looking for her lost parent. By happenstance, she runs into Rose’s mother and father. Perkin’s uses our ignorance of the timeline to create tension. Not understanding Joan’s identity, we see a possible threat in Rose’s father as a man whose kindness appears to be freighted with menace. Only in the last few bloody scenes does all this come into perspective and the coincidence appears to be a dark providence. Joan goes down into the basement of the now abandoned school. The fiery eyes of the radiator are no longer lit. Her sacrifice goes unheeded and alas, Joan realizes her spiritual life is in the hands of an absentee father. The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s bleak ending has nothing to do with Kat/Joan’s murders. Loss of spiritual clarity is the true horror.
Kat/Joan have been thrown out of a dark Eden. The final scenes show Kat/Joan weeping, lost in a snowy field, the boarded up school now truly deserted. She walks along the path where the dark figure showed her the shambles of her parent’s car. These last scenes are not dream-like but harsh reality. No figure accompanies her as she walks, abandoned in every way. Let’s talk about fear, the fear of being alone spiritually, abandoned by a God who has shrunk from us. In our first fears, we’re terrified by the idea of our parents leaving, by a car accident or murder or worse yet abandonment. The scariest thing is not bodies and blood, but total rejection by the people we cherish most. By the end of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Kat/Joan is not a daughter at all, but a lost soul wandering a wintry wasteland.