Your Dad’s a Total PSYCHO

Odds are you’ve never heard of Osgood “Oz” Perkins, whose second film (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) is currently playing as a Netflix original. That film opens with the following dedication: “for A.P. who gave me an old house.” When you realize that Osgood’s father was Anthony Perkins who, as Norman Bates, lived in one of the creepiest houses in movie history, you get the connection.

The macabre is definitely genetic, as is the talent.

Provocative and original as the Netflix film is, Perkins’ first feature (The Blackcoat’s Daughter 2015) is even better. Eerie, creepy, and disturbing, this is one of those films that absolutely demands a second viewing to get it right, and even then, you still might wonder. And believe me, rewatching The Blackcoat’s Daughter is no chore. It’s that good!

Set mostly in a Catholic girls boarding school, the non-linear narrative is divided into three sections, each named after the girl who is the particular focus for that segment. Kat (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) is a younger student whose parents fail to show up in time to pick her up for winter break. Rose (Lucy Boynton), a senior, is in the same fix but for different reasons, having deliberately misled her parents so that she can stay one extra night and see her boyfriend.

When we first see Joan (Emma Roberts), she’s sneaking out of some kind of hospital. Assailed by disturbing flashbacks of various kinds, Joan is finally given a ride by an older couple (James Remar, Lauren Holly) who end up taking her back to the same school where the film opens.

If I haven’t told you much about what really goes on, that’s deliberate. The less you know about the plot (convoluted but totally understandable if you like thinking about what you watch), the more you’ll be surprised and perhaps even astonished at how it fits together.

Gorgeously photographed with terrific performances all round, The Blackcoat’s Daughter demonstrates an accomplished sophistication, intelligence and restraint on the part of its first-time director, who does double-duty as screenwriter. Now 43 years old, Oz Perkins originally followed his old man’s path, scoring minor supporting roles in various films beginning with Psycho II (1983) in which he played young Norman. Based on his first two movies as director, however, Oz’s niche is definitely behind the camera.

It’s tempting to define The Blackcoat’s Daughter as a horror film or supernatural thriller. There’s an exorcism and some decidedly gruesome stuff involving knives, but it is as imprecise to pigeonhole the new film as it is to categorize Psycho or Silence of the Lambs as horror movies. Like those two films, there is far more to The Blackcoat’s Daughter than the familiar tropes.

Also worth noting is the haunting, minimalist score by younger sibling Elvis Perkins. Like the film’s use of slow dissolves and deliberate pacing, the music fosters and sustains dread and suspense. The dark interiors of the nearly deserted school, the snow-laden exteriors, and the gloomy nightscapes are the visual counterparts to the ominous sounds of the film, musical and otherwise.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House utilizes the same approach and style as his first film, but within a much narrower focus. It is the tale of a haunted house, and consequently nearly every scene, except for a few exterior shots showing arrivals and departures, takes place inside the walls or (I should say) the domicile itself. A book called The Lady in the Walls plays an important part in the movie which explains the distinction.

In addition, the movie is very nearly a one-person film. British actress Ruth Wilson plays Lily, a 28-year-old hospice nurse who, in the film’s opening monologue, tells us that she will not live to be 29. Lily’s patient is elderly horror novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) who is mostly confined to her bed and sitting chair. In the few lines she has in the film, Iris confuses (or not) Lily with Polly—a character in one of her novels or a former resident of the house or possibly both. (Polly, by the way, is played by Lucy Boynton from The Blackcoat’s Daughter.)

Extremely reminiscent, but by no means imitative, of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Oz Perkins’ film is a slow burn, the dread smoldering in the shadows. This is a very dark movie, literally as well as thematically.

Brother Elvis again contributes a moody score, and there are two other nods to dad Anthony, in addition to the dedication.

I think the former Norman Bates would be proud of his boys.