"The Blackcoat's Daughter" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock" are this week's selections.
Week two of Cringe Blog brought us a new Halloween comedy from Adam Sandler (getting better-than-expected reviews), and, as of today, "The Haunting of Bly Manor" hit Netflix. If I'm on my game, maybe I'll be able to write about that before the month is up — but in all honesty, I have to finish binging Amazon's "The Boys" first, a show I am dying to write about. But that's for November.
Before we get to this week's selections, I wanted to share a playlist of some spooky-adjacent songs I've been listening to this month. It's not genre-specific; any song that talk about dark things or gives a creepy vibe will do. For some reason that tends to skew toward punk and alternative rock, but there's some R&B, hip-hop and Americana in there as well. Give it a listen if you're so inclined (and use Apple Music).
"The Blackcoat's Daughter" (2015)
Netflix, rated R, 93 minutes
Isolation is a terrible feeling.
I live alone. I love living alone. I'm an independent person, and I need my own space. I can wear whatever I want around the house. I can watch whatever I want. I can cook whatever I want. And most of the time, my spirits are high. I talk to my friends and family every day. In nonpandemic situations, I see them often. They are my lifelines to happiness (along with movies and sports, though my favorite sports teams are generally shitty, so let's not think about them right now). As a result, I get by just fine.
But there have been times this year where things have been less fine. I have felt the pang of missing my favorite people, of catching fits of laughter together, of hugging them. The pangs don't last long, usually just an evening or an afternoon, but they hit hard all the same. In those moments, I would do anything to be together with them all. I'm sure many of you know what I'm talking about.
I think that's what makes "The Blackcoat's Daughter" so relatable right now. We follow Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) as they get stuck at their Catholic boarding school over winter break. Rose had lied to her parents about the pick-up date to buy herself some time to think; she hasn't had her period in a while. Kat has had the pick-up date on her calendar, but her parents simply never arrive, and no one at the school can reach them. So they're stuck there, Kat the freshman and Rose the senior, together. Of course, this is a "Cringe Blog" selection, so there's more to the story than just loneliness: a malevolent presence is infiltrating the school, and possibly the girls themselves.
Their story intercuts with the story of a young woman, Joan (Emma Roberts), who is attempting to run, either from something or toward somewhere, though a snowy night. We're not sure which, at least at her arc's beginning. But Joan, too, is alone, until a middle-aged couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) offers her a ride north. Joan still doesn't feel safe; the husband, Bill, is giving off some creep vibes. But needs the ride, so she accepts — for better or worse.
"The Blackcoat's Daughter," Oz Perkins' debut feature film, is much more show than tell, which I love. The story, once fully revealed, is fairly simple. It's on you to take what you will from it, and to me, the story leans heavily on pondering the idea of isolation, what it feels like and the lengths people will go to never feel alone. This is a bleak film, no doubt. But I think going through this pandemic will allow you to feel empathy for characters in this movie who otherwise you might not. It makes for a rewarding experience.
Like I said, the plot isn't revolutionary once revealed. The film gets by on style, where Perkins shows his ability well. There's a ton of quite effective (read: disturbing) imagery here, and although the story moves at a moderate pace, it never feels boring. Perkins also smartly ends the film before it gets to be too much. There's no dud performances here, but Kiernan Shipka beats everyone else by a long shot. She's on her game, and the film is worth watching to see her character's arc (and the changes in her mannerisms as her character's arc evolves).
(P.S. A fun meta-game to play while watching this movie is trying to figure out which character is the titular character. I went back and forth a few different times with my thinking, though there's a clear answer by the end of the film. Don't know what a blackcoat is? Doesn't matter, take your best guess!)
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975)
HBO Max, rated PG, 117 minutes
There's a lot about "Picnic at Hanging Rock," a classic of Australian cinema, that feels unknowable*.
That includes story elements, yes, but also intent. Director Peter Weir creates a world where nothing is certain. This isn't a typical Cringe Blog pick. Outside of one or two images, there's not much about it that I could classify as objectively scary. I'm including it because the whole thing is a mystery, played out in the shining Australian sun.
Ironically, the film is blunt about where it's going, at least at first. An opening crawl tells us that a group of students and a teacher from a women's college go missing on Valentine's Day in 1900. The first 30 minutes and change are the build-up to their disappearance. We see Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) imply to her friend (lover?) Sara (Margaret Nelson) that Miranda will be leaving soon and won't be coming back. We see people talk about Hanging Rock's volcanic capabilities, though it hasn't erupted in more than a million years. We see the students, teachers and driver sit down for their picnic.
We see them slip through time; everyone's watches stop working at the stroke of noon. We see Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Edith (Christine Schuler) disobey orders and climb the rock. We see a rich boy, Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), follow the girls. We see the girls seemingly fall under a spell, lying down in a square, before Miranda, Irma and Marion awake in a trance and continue to climb into a crevice as Edith screams and runs down the mountain.
We don't see the teacher (Vivean Gray) follow them up the mountain, though we learn later from Edith that she did. In fact, we don't see much else of the disappearance. The rest of the movie is the fallout from the disappearance: Sara is sick with worry for Miranda, the college's leader (Rachel Roberts) is more worried about the school's reputation than the girls, and Tom becomes obsessed with finding them.
Much like "The Blackcoat's Daughter," "Hanging Rock" invites you to put your own perspective on things, but even more so. As one characters says, it is "a dream within a dream." People talk about Miranda like she's a mythical creature, and she seems to have some sort of supernatural foresight, but a fine point is never put on any of it. There's hints of a critique on classism and sexuality, among other things, but only in the background. The closest thing to a message the film has, I think, is in its feeling. Weir wants viewers to feel like they, too, are slipping out of time; watching this 117-minute movie feels like it takes less than an hour, even though not all that much happens. It's a magic trick. The score of "Hanging Rock" is wind instrument-led, which only heightens the sense of a dream, but one where everything feels slightly off.
When I was young, I had a book of animals, one for each letter of the alphabet (I think, anyway; I might be conflating two books here, but it doesn't matter). The entry for the letter K was the katydid. For some reason, this passage unsettled me, so much that I still remember the feeling now. I don't know why. It was just a paragraph about a bug, with some pictures. "Hanging Rock" gives me a similar feeling, the feeling that something is not right.
Not knowing what that thing is? That can be the scariest thing of all.
*The movie was turned into an Amazon miniseries in 2018. I haven't watched it. Reviews say it's … fine? Watch it if you want, but not before the film version.