The Blackcoat's Daughter director Osgood Perkins on horror, genre filmmaking and his legendary dad

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Mar 29, 2017, 3:28 PM EDT

When one's father is Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame, it's only natural that one might want to grow up and make horror movies.

In the case of Osgood Perkins, actually, the eldest son of the late, great actor and the photographer Berry Berenson, that wasn't necessarily his first inclination. Osgood (or Oz for short) started out as an actor -- he actually played the younger version of his father's classic character, Norman Bates, in Psycho II, and also had roles in films like Legally Blonde and the 2009 Star Trek reboot. But a few years ago he switched to writing and directing, and that seems to be where his true calling lies.

Perkins has made two films so far, The Blackcoat's Daughter and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. The latter debuted late last year on Netflix; the former is actually the first movie he made (it was originally titled February), but it's available now on Direct TV and will be released theatrically this week. Both films are less of the "jump scare" variety of horror and more in the vein of atmospheric, moody, quietly chilling genre fare like The Shining or Don't Look Now.

The Blackcoat's Daughter takes place at an upstate New York boarding school that's emptied for winter break except for two girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton), who have both stayed behind for different reasons. Meanwhile, a third young woman (Emma Roberts) makes her way toward the school on a mysterious and ultimately terrifying mission. Perkins says that the film was partially inspired by the loss of his parents -- who died nine years and one day apart, his father on September 12, 1992, from an AIDS-related illness and his mother in the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

We spoke with Osgood Perkins by phone about the impact of those events on his life and work, his thoughts on horror cinema, and his father's legacy and performance as one of the genre's greatest characters.

Syfy Wire: So this is the second film of yours to come out but is actually the first film you made.

Osgood Perkins: Yeah, we made this at the beginning of 2015 and we screened it at the Toronto Film Festival, and we sold it right away. A24 bought it on the first day, which was thrilling, and then Netflix just called my producer, an incoming phone call, the Pegasus mythological beast of the film business, the incoming phone call, "What do you have that you want to do next?" And it just so happened that I had I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, this little tiny script, a poem that I never thought anybody would want to make into a movie. But Netflix wants to make a lot of movies, so all of a sudden, a year exactly to the date that we started shooting February, we were all of a sudden shooting my second movie. Which, because it was Netflix, we just did it and we shot it and I finished it and I cut it and we scored it and we screened it and they put it on the platform. But yeah, The Blackcoat's Daughter is my first movie.

The Blackcoat's Daughter did the festival circuit under the name February. What led to the title change?

When A24 bought the movie to distribute in North America they wanted a title that would sort of indicate genre a little bit more and they suggested some titles. I couldn't let the movie be titled some of the suggestions that were made, so I had to just dive a little bit deeper and went to the lyrics in my brother's song (note: his brother Elvis Perkins is a singer/songwriter) and felt that I really liked the word daughter for this and the sort of elusive quality of the blackcoat. I mean, what is that? Is it a priest? Is it the devil? Is it a terrible father? Is it her darkness itself? The quality of a child being reared by a dark entity was just right and I actually quite love it as the title now.

I wanted to ask you a two-part question -- first, about the cinematic influences on you and this film.

The cinematic, you know, you have to start somewhere on page zero and I was thinking of The Shining and I was thinking of Let the Right One In and I was thinking of my friend Bryan Bertino's film The Strangers, which I've said before just struck me as such a sort of beautifully sad movie about a life interrupted. I know it's sort of categorized down sometimes to a home invasion movie but for me it's really sad story about two people who just want to have a relaxing night together and unfortunately it doesn't go that way. Those were sort of the references.

Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now was another one. A lot of these movies where there's a lot of build to essentially one event. De Palma's Carrie is very much that also. It's a sad story about a disenfranchised teenager that ends with a real eruption. Those are the forms that I was working with.

And the second part of the question would be about the personal inspiration, which was the loss of both your parents.

The very strange fact that not only did I lose both of my parents in very significant public ways, but that they died nine years minus one day apart from each other was something that -- my father was September 12 and my mother was September 11 -- there was something cosmically pointed about all of that and that was sort of the original motivation behind the movie, the structure of the movie and the quality of this return to a certain time. It was about a return to an anniversary and that the story is facilitated by the fact that it's happening at the same time, which is why it was called February. The idea being that a time can also be a location that you can visit, you can revisit a time of year in the same way you can revisit a cemetery.

Your work so far tends to lean more in the direction of quieter horror where it's more about atmosphere than outright shocks or jump scares.

For sure. For me, the best parts of horror movies or horror literature are the parts that deal so much with everything that's hidden. So much of what we tackle in horror movies is what we don't know, what we can't know or understand. Horror movies are essentially grappling with the mystery of death -- it is, in the end, what we're thinking about while we're watching the movie. When will I die? How will the end come? Horror movies are essentially about the unknowable, so in my films I want to know less.

Have you read a lot in the genre because from both your films I get the sense that you not just know the history of horror cinema but also know the literature. For example,  I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House has a very strong Shirley Jackson vibe to it, even down to the title.

Absolutely. I was actually going to make the We Have Always Lived in the Castle movie (based on Jackson's final novel). I was on the finish line to sign to write that script when I Am the Pretty Thing in the House got green lit. I realized that I was actually making the same movie twice because I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is basically and intentionally a lost Shirley Jackson novel turned into a movie. That was a big part of what was behind it for me.

I was an English major in college, and so the text is always more important to me than some film reference. I am trying to come from a more literate place all the time. Almost more than anything are these American folk songs, murder ballads, which I've referenced in talking about I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, but also in The Blackcoat's Daughter. Those very strange, early American folk songs that deal with these really unbelievably brutal murders. These are really sort of abstracted and oblique, very gruesome murder ballads that are in time and out of time, and do walk the line between sensible and completely nonsensical. The simplicity but then also the complexity of those little murder ballads that don't say a lot but then do say a lot are probably as influential to me as anything.

Do you remember the first time you watched your father in Psycho?

You'd think that I would have some really clear memory or "a-ha" moment or even some trauma about it, but I don't. All I know is that for a long time I didn't see it -- i was 12 or 13 and still hadn't seen it. I don't remember the first time I watched it, but I do know that every time I watch it, no matter where I am in life or how I am or what's going on, I'm always really moved by what he was able to do. It's one of those performances that sort of stands out of time and even stands out within the text of the movie...everyone else is in a movie from five years ago and he's in this sort of timeless grace. So every time I see it, I'm astonished.

I would like to ask a little bit about your dad's legacy. What impact do you think that's had on the filmmaking choices you're making and would you like to continue to have the Perkins name associated with this genre as you go along with your own career?

I think that I would be the first to admit that a lot of what my psyche does is my psyche still tries to connect with my old man, who in life, I couldn't really know. I think that there is that strange thing where somebody dies and then you get to work trying to know them. That's certainly been true for me for always. I think that it's almost like using the language of the horror movie or even just using the language of the movie, of movie making, but more specifically using the language of horror movie making to in a way commune with that connection. It becomes a language, becomes an alphabet. The alphabet of making horror movies sort of enables me to continue to explore this relationship with them.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is dedicated to him and he's all over the movie. He's in it, he sings in it. His movies are in it, his image is in it, it's me still working out that connection, which I think is not specific to me. I think plenty of people who had big fathers who they missed in life, they didn't catch them in life, end up reimagining that relationship. I just get to be lucky to do it in the same medium that he was so iconic in.

You're writing a new film now. What can you tell us about it?

I can say that it's a pretty far-out thing. I suppose I've managed to garner some confidence from the movies I've made so far, and so I can push this one a little further. It's set in the 1950s, it's in black and white, and it's sort of about a Satanic adulation of a young woman in a small California town. It's very lyrical, it's very musical, it's called Medusa, and it's sort of a Satanic coming of age story. It's a real rich world and a strangely huge movie -- we'll see if anybody agrees to give me some money to do it.

A24 and DirecTV will release The Blackcoat's Daughter in theaters and On Demand March 31, 2017.