In a very short window, writer-director Osgood Perkins has established himself as an outstanding horror filmmaker. Thanks to a quirk of modern movie distribution, his debut feature, "The Blackcoat's Daughter," arrives about six months after his second film, "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House."
"The Blackcoat's Daughter" is more atmospheric than sensationalistic, following the goings-on one winter break at a fancy private girls' school, where a worldly upperclassman, Rose (played by Lucy Boynton), is stuck babysitting a younger student, Kat (Kiernan Shipka). While the two girls wait for their parents to arrive, they experience unexplained noises and visions, which they attribute to the rumors that some of the staff are satanists.
Periodically, Perkins cuts to a related story line involving a distraught young traveler named Joan (Emma Roberts). Eventually, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" connects the pieces and ends strongly, though Perkins smartly spends more creative energy on crafting creepy situations than on pointing toward the payoff.
As the son of "Psycho" star Anthony Perkins, the director has terror in his blood, but his film is in no way Hitchcockian. Leave out the handful of splatter scenes, and it could just as easily be a muted mediation on growing up, as the meek Kat watches the more mature Rose with a mix of awe and anxiousness, and as the older Joan looks back on her own girlhood with regret. This is a different kind of scare-flick in which the main fears are loss and loneliness.
'The Blackcoat's Daughter'
Rating: R, for brutal bloody violence and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset, West Hollywood