Director Osgood Perkins reveals the inspirations behind his latest film and why he prefers storytelling in horror.
Late last year, director Osgood Perkins surprised audiences with the release of I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, which stars Ruth Wilson as Lily, a live-in nurse caring for an elderly writer in a remote New England home. As much a ghost story as it is a rumination on loneliness, the film is suffused with gothic horror despite its modern-day setting, enticing viewers as Lily digs into the truth behind her employer’s most famous novel, The Lady Within the Walls. Through a masterful balance of quiet tension and beautiful, decaying imagery, Perkins is ratchets up a suffocating sense of dread as it is slowly revealed that the living can only borrow a home from the dead.
Perkins’ follow-up film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, is in fact his first as well as his directorial debut, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 under the title February. Of course, Perkins is no stranger to horror; he is the son of the late Anthony Perkins and he made his big screen debut as the twelve year-old version of his father’s iconic character, Norman Bates, in 1983’s Psycho II. But with his first two films, Perkins has set himself apart from his pedigree, offering audiences atmospheric, cerebral horror full of ruminations on what the genre has to offer audiences besides cheap jump scares.
For Perkins, horror offers the chance to captivate and subdue audiences. “We live in such a shit, horrible, scary world so why do people still insist on spending their time watching horrible scary things happening? Part of it seems to me, from the creative perspective, that what’s exciting about the genre is it really forces attention, it really gets everybody to say ‘oh fuck, what’s gonna happen here next?’ In a horror picture you’re kind of forced to be on your toes, it’s fight or flight from the beginning. So using that as the kind of medium, I have found that you can get the viewer to be quiet with you.” It is this sense of stillness that infuses Perkins’ body of work to date and which ultimate give each scare ‐ these are horror films after all ‐ a greater and more shocking impact.
Like its predecessor, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow burn horror film that eventually builds to a terrifying crescendo. The film takes place over winter break at a prep school, Bramford, where two girls, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), are left alone after their parents mysteriously fail to pick them up. But while Rose has tricked her parents into coming late so she can see her boyfriend, Kat is plagued by the notion that her parents are dead, a fear that begins to haunt her with horrifying visions that culminate in increasingly bizarre behavior. At the same time, we’re introduced to Joan (Emma Roberts), a troubled young woman who accepts a ride with a couple on their way to Bramford. As Joan gets closer to the school, Kat becomes increasingly unstable, slipping into the hold of an evil force until finally the two stories intersect in a shocking twist reminiscent of the best Lynchian nightmares.
The cinematic influences on The Blackcoat’s Daughter ‐ which feels perfectly at home alongside fellow A24 alum The VVitch ‐ might seem surprising at first glance, although Perkins succiently explains the essence he distilled from each film. “I saw Let the Right One In, the original, and I saw my friend Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers and both of those movies sort of working strangely together sort of impressed upon me this idea that a fine horror movie can also be a very sort of sad, humanistic thing. Both of those movies are just about loss and about the life we kind of can’t have. The Strangers is just about two people who want to spend a night alone resolving their relationship and it sadly doesn’t go that way. Let the Right One In is just about someone who just wants to figure out a way to exist and it’s just never going to work out that way.”
But for Perkins, the story was also very personal. “I wanted to tap into my own experiences with loss, having lost both of my parents [Perkins’ mother, photographer Berry Berenson, died in the September 11 attacks]. I wanted to find a way to tell a story about someone who loses their parents and then what? What happens to them, what takes over, what slides into that hole that gets created, what moves in? That sort of became the impetus for writing the movie. All of the horror stuff, all of those genre imperatives are fun and delightful and delicious and glamourous and pleasing but for me they aren’t the thing, they’re the Trojan horse that carries in the thing.”
This darker side of loss is evident throughout The Blackcoat’s Daughter. As with I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, we see a slow mental unraveling unfolding alongside a growing sense of anxiety and danger. Perkins is able to create a stark and isolating environment in the empty school, building up a layer of increasingly sinister events that finally pay off in a dark, bloody and disturbing way that is unmissable for horror fans. As Perkins continues to work within the genre, his masterful storytelling and ability to create suspenseful atmospheres will continue to shock and awe for years to come.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is now available exclusively on DirecTV and in theaters on March 31.