Let’s address the obvious right off the bat: Yes, “The Blackcoat’’s Daughter” (formerly known as “February”) is the first feature written and directed by Osgood Perkins — son of Anthony Perkins, the late, great actor who made his stab at immortality as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — and yes, this, too, is a thriller that generates a shock or two through the grievous misuse of cutlery. (Come to think of it, it also features a portentous closeup of water swirling down a bathtub drain.) But rest assured, this slow-burning, sure-footed scary movie is likely to prompt discussions about things other than family traditions — or, if you prefer, bloodlines. An atmospheric and suspenseful indie with a subtle but unmistakable retrograde feel, it should score with sophisticated genre aficionados and anyone else inclined to savor a stealthy, unsettling escalation of dread before full-bore horror kicks in.
The challenge facing those eager to talk or write about “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is simple yet daunting: You can’t provide too many details without spilling an inordinate number of beans. Indeed, it’s hard to praise the three lead performances — which, not incidentally, are very good indeed — without spoiling the pleasure of appreciating how each actress approaches her role.
The narrative proceeds along two parallel tracks during the dead of winter. At a prestigious Catholic prep school for girls, two very different students — Kat (Kiernan Shipka of TV’s “Mad Men”), a taciturn introvert, and Rose (Lucy Boynton), a sullen mean girl — are left alone with two older female employees because, they claim, their parents have been delayed while traveling to pick them up for the winter break. (At least one of the girls, it’s safe to assume, is lying.) Several miles away, Joan (Emma Roberts), a skittish young woman who’s evidently on unauthorized leave from a clinic (or a mental hospital), is journeying through the snow when she gets a lift from a middle-aged couple (James Remar, Lauren Holly) whose motives may or may not be as selfless as they seem.
At the school, Perkins sustains tension and raises a gaggle of goosebumps by accentuating the chilly ambiance — there are times when you can practically see how cold it must be in the dark and (presumably) deserted hallways and storage areas — and alternating between unnatural silences and the atonal score composed by his brother, Elvis Perkins. (Julie Kirkwood’s economical lensing is another major plus.) On the road, the freshman filmmaker shrewdly toys with audience expectations — James Remar has played entirely too many villains onscreen for the audience to easily accept his character here at face value — and works quiet and disquieting miracles in a hotel-room scene that is at once erotically charged and fraught with menace.
In addition to everything else he does right in “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” Perkins plays fair: When you replay the movie in your mind after the final fadeout, you realize that every twist was dutifully presaged, and the final reveal was hidden in plain sight all along. One might quibble with the filmmaker’s use of a shadowy visual that could pass as the evil sibling of James Stewart’s camera-shy companion in “Harvey.” But that minor distraction is easily overlooked as you ponder one of the more provocative questions raised by Perkins: Might the beneficiary of an exorcism ever long to be repossessed?