Terror and Longing in the Films of Osgood Perkins

Given the breathless way that writer-director Osgood Perkins’ Longlegs has been promoted, it would make sense to assume that it marks the debut of a promising new horror filmmaker. But Longlegs is actually Perkins’ fourth feature film, and he’s been making distinctive, unsettling horror movies for nearly a decade now. All of his films demonstrate a meticulous, ethereal approach to the genre, with an emphasis on the internal lives of his characters and a sense of poetic longing that augments the fear and dread.

That sense of longing is immediately apparent in Perkins’ first film, 2015’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which is set in the dead of winter at a boarding school in upstate New York, where students are headed home for a weeklong break. Quiet freshman Katherine (Kiernan Shipka) is introduced via a disturbing dream about her parents’ death, and she seems uncannily certain that those parents will never arrive to pick her up.

The school quickly empties out, and Katherine is left alone with fellow student Rose (Lucy Boynton), who’s lied to both her parents and the headmaster so she can stay behind to deal with a possible pregnancy. Two nuns remain at the school as ostensible supervisors, but the girls are left largely on their own, both yearning for a kind of comfort that is just out of reach.

Katherine finds that comfort from a supernatural presence, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter introduces a recurring Perkins theme of a seemingly vulnerable young woman targeted by a sinister entity that turns out to be a source of empowerment and solace. For Katherine, it’s a dark demon that lurks just out of sight, encouraging her in a guttural tone to “kill everyone.”

“After all, we can’t let you live here,” the headmaster tells Katherine, somewhat jokingly, before leaving the two girls behind for the break, but the school may be the only place Katherine feels at home, and if she has to commit brutal murders to stay there, that’s what she’ll do. Shipka conveys Katherine’s loneliness and desperation, in contrast to Rose’s brash confidence, which marks Rose as the more obvious suspect for danger early on.

Perkins keeps the audience off balance with a non-linear narrative structure, periodically cutting away to the story of troubled young woman Joan (Emma Roberts) on the run from somewhere, headed toward the same school where Katherine and Rose are facing their doom. Joan carries a similar sense of longing, and Perkins slowly puts together the pieces of how these characters relate to each other. The movie’s final shock isn’t about a plot twist, though; it’s about the realization of how far someone will go to hold onto the only support and acceptance they’ve ever truly known.

Perkins distills that theme even further in his second film, 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, which is even more abstract and minimalist, set entirely in a rustic New England house, with a single character alone onscreen for much of its running time. Ruth Wilson delivers hushed narration as nurse Lily Saylor, who’s been hired to care for aging horror novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). Lily opens the movie by noting that she’s dead (“I will never be 29 years old”) and refers to the house as “the staying place of a rotted ghost.”

Yet for all its supposed terror, Iris’ home is as welcoming for the right kind of person as the demon-possessed school in The Blackcoat’s Daughter is for Katherine. Lily is less moody and melancholy than Katherine, but she’s still lonely, making one strained phone call to friends and alluding to a past break-up, and otherwise passing her time solely with the dementia-afflicted Iris. Iris keeps referring to Lily as “Polly,” who is another pretty thing that once lived in the house, another rotted ghost who’s made this home her staying place.

As ghosts go, Polly (returning Perkins collaborator Lucy Boynton) is relatively benign, although she clearly means to keep Lily in the house whether Lily wants to stay or not. Perkins presents I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House as a sort of tone poem, held together by impressionistic images and Lily’s florid narration, and any specific details about the past lives of Polly and Iris are almost incidental. As in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Perkins extracts maximum creepiness out of simple creaks and clangs, making bits of outdated technology like a cassette player and a tube TV with antenna into objects of menace.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House resembles a Gothic novel more than a modern haunted house movie, and Lily’s ultimate fate is less scary than inevitable, much like Katherine’s. They’re both trapped by their own sadness and isolation as much as by any dark forces.

The protagonist of Perkins’ third film, 2020’s Gretel and Hansel, takes a more proactive approach to dealing with a supernatural threat, but she too finds it better to embrace than reject. Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes offer a brooding take on the well-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, inverting the title to keep the focus on the teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis), who becomes the caretaker of her younger brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey).

Even while telling such a familiar story, Perkins finds ways to surprise and confound the audience, beginning with the harsh rejection that Gretel and Hansel get from their mother as she casts them out into the woods following their father’s death. As expected, they wander through the wilderness before coming upon what appears to be an inviting home full of delectable treats, just when their hunger becomes unbearable.

“I’d hate for you to start something you can’t stop,” the witch Holda (Alice Krige) tells Gretel when they first meet, as Gretel is building a fire outside the witch’s house. That fire is an apt metaphor for what Holda awakens in Gretel, showing her the power she has within herself. In the traditional story, the witch fattens up both Gretel and Hansel so she can eat them, but here Holda appears to be grooming Gretel as her successor, while setting Hansel up to be the sacrifice for Gretel’s ascension.

Unlike Katherine or Lily, Gretel doesn’t simply succumb to the darkness, but she doesn’t exactly fight it, either. Lillis gives Gretel an inner strength that comes across in her interactions with Holda and in her narration, which is more forceful than Lily’s, but just as lyrical. Perkins matches it with gorgeous images that look like they could have been lifted from stained glass windows or illuminated manuscripts, and his evolution as a visual stylist is impressive.

Krige plays Perkins’ most fully realized villain, in a hint of how he might handle the terrifying title character of Longlegs, and Holda is sympathetic even as she tells her monstrous origin story. For the cast-off women of Perkins’ films, the allure of the supernatural is a way of asserting themselves in a world where they’re too easily forgotten. Gretel takes that one step further, ultimately redirecting and reclaiming the power that threatened to consume her. She’s an avatar of Perkins’ vision for horror as something moving and beautiful, evoking emotions that are just as primal as terror, but last longer.

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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