Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Please read this article after you have seen the film.
Most possession horror is deceptive in that the female body is ravaged, but the story and thematic struggle itself belong’s to leading male characters. Regan MacNeil gets torn up seven ways to Sunday in The Exorcist, but it’s Father Karras whose crisis of faith takes center stage. The Exorcism of Emily Rose sees a sweet college student ravaged by a dark force, but Reverend Moore is the one on trial for the bulk of the film. Reverend Marcus’ crisis of faith is the catalyst and the climax of The Last Exorcism, not so much poor Nell and her possible demon baby. This is not malevolent misogyny on the part of the storytellers, it’s just a common tendency among films that concern themselves with all things satanic. The assault is on the feminine body, but the abstract struggle and redemption is mostly reserved for the menfolk. With this in mind, 2016’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter is unique in its insistent femininity. Oz Perkins’ simmering horror film focuses on a quiet girl at a New York boarding school, and stays with her throughout and after she becomes intimately familiar with the occult.
Mousy student Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is uncomfortable. The social gauntlet of high school is foreign to her, and she has trouble connecting with her peers at the Catholic girls boarding school that she attends. When the school goes on winter break and the students head home for the holidays, Kat is stranded until her parents can pick her up a few days later. Two staff members remain to keep an eye on her and an upperclassman named Rose (Lucy Boynton). Rose is rebellious and cheeky, sneaking out to meet her boyfriend and spreading gossip about satan-worshipping nuns on campus. She’s not much of a friend and begrudgingly engages Kat in conversation here and there. Meanwhile, Kat begins to sense the very halls of the school calling out to her, beckoning her. As the snow falls and the winds swirl outside, a payphone in the school rings, a void calls out to Kat, and she listens to it all. Bad things happen. Heads roll. Offerings are made to the unsavory.
This all sounds like a pretty standard occult film, until the last fifteen minutes roll up. Kat, strapped to a hospital bed after committing heinous crimes, receives an exorcism. During that process, she becomes aware of her demon leaving her body and she begs him to remain with her.
I’ll run that again.
The young victim, who just regained control of her own body and spirit, sees her occupier leaving and pleads for him to stay. To her, this evil presence is the closest thing she has to a friend, and she’s devastated to be left alone again.
So now the raison d’etre for older Kat’s (formerly and deceptively “Joan”) plotline is revealed. She wants her guardian back. That entire time that Kat spent in lockdown after her first batch of kills was spent plotting her return to the scene of the original meet-cute and reuniting with her cloven “Dad” (as she addresses the voice that calls her from a payphone in the earlier timeline). It’s a fantastic conceit that plays out in a shocking climax: Kat kills and decapitates two more people of her own gumption, a girl entirely unpossessed of anything, including a moral compass. No demon forces her to pull out a blade and go to town on two innocents. She is fully in control and cognizant of her actions, which leads to Kat’s utter despair and disgust when she realizes that her plan had failed and thus she willfully committed the premier Commandment. She murdered two people, who turn out to be the parents of one of her prior victims, popped their heads in a suitcase, brought it to the school, and placed the heads before a boiler that was no longer calling to her. Kat is really and truly alone, and no one is flashing the blade but her.
In the possession or exorcism film, so much shock value is placed upon the violence committed by the possessed when they’re acting under coercion, and often that violence is self-inflicted. The Exorcist‘s Regan violating herself with a crucifix. The titular Emily Rose contorting herself into oblivion. Even the relatively mild bruising that matriarch Carolyn endures in The Conjuring is the work of an invasive force compelling injury upon its victim. However, The Blackcoat’s Daughter deposits its horror in the host’s culpability long after the presence (and the coercion it flexes) has left their body. The double homicide and Kat’s subsequent roadside breakdown is what elevates this film from “good” to “ding-dang-diddly masterpiece”, because possession films don’t do this. Possession films don’t place their victims in search of re-assimilation with their invaders. Possession films don’t place the responsibility for damaged caused upon anyone but the unwelcome entity (unless we’re talking about Apartment 143, but that’s another column for another day). Possession films generally don’t concern themselves with much of the afflicted woman beyond her physical and spiritual trauma. In this pocket of cinema, glorious redemption or abject failure is a boys club. By telling this story the way that he did, Oz Perkins did something radical: he positioned the entire ordeal within one woman’s scope of influence.
The film itself is layered in icy textures that serve to isolate. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood makes both panoramic sprawls and tight boiler rooms feel at once mysterious and foreboding. The beautiful but detached mood underlines Perkins’ emphasis on loneliness as a potential weak spot in one’s spiritual armor, leaving a prospective vessel open to demonic occupation. The snowbound setting and chilling atmosphere of The Blackcoat’s Daughter wasn’t just an aesthetic choice. The cool palettes and imposing hollowed hallways add to Kat’s sense of isolation, a lonely despair that can be seen in her face at film’s beginning. It’s that isolation that primes Kat as a vessel for companionship. Rose offers her friendship only begrudgingly but dark entities are always ready to keep you warm so it makes sense that Kat wouldn’t put up much of a fuss when a hooved demon comes a-calling. Add to that Kat’s premonition at the film’s opening that her parents were dead (which was true), and she was doubly vulnerable to spiritual penetration. Once possessed, Kat wasn’t terrified to lose control; she was content to have company.
It’s not the first time in cinema that women have embraced their new corporeal roommate. Witchboard‘s Linda Brewster bristled at the pitch-black demon Malfeitor when he first came out of a Ouija board to say howdy, but eventually they got cozy and Linda got aggressive and masculine. Related: it’s been months since I last mentioned Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, so I’m not even sorry for hyping that book up again as I mention that it has a fantastic chapter on the trauma of the female body in possession films (Witchboard analysis included).
Women who dance with the devil or any of his homeboys tend to sit on polar ends of a spectrum. Possession victims are either loose, gyrating femme fatales slaying men left and right with their wicked wiles, or they are little Regan MacNeil or Emily Rose, the purest of heart and vessel. Young Kat sits uncomfortably in the darkened hallway between the extreme archetypes, with her desperate loneliness as her biggest vulnerability. The Blackcoat’s Daughter stands apart from the pack of occult films in that the entire crisis, of both body and spirit, is endured by a flawed young woman. Kat is far from a damsel-in-distress in the traditional context of the possession film. Rather, her desperation for connection becomes a weakness and a monstrosity, leading to her affliction and her tragic circular denouement. The Blackcoat’s Daughter does have a bonkers third act, true enough. But the subversion isn’t in the non-linear plot, nor is it in the lack of holy water and backbends. Perkins tells a story about a girl who loses agency, but the struggle and the story is hers alone.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (US).