‘February’: TIFF Review

An outstanding indie horror film.

Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton star as young women connected to supernatural goings on at a girls' boarding school in writer-director Osgood Perkins' debut.

Evoking some unholy cross between the satanic classic Rosemary's Baby and Lucile Hadzihalilovic's uncannily eerie Innocence, with an inky dash of Lost Highway, actor-turned-writer-director Osgood Perkins' horror story February represents a remarkable debut. Suffused with insidious menace and suspense but rarely ever resorting to cheap sonic shock tactics or gore for gore's sake, this assiduously assembled slow simmer of spookiness features Emma Roberts (We're the Millers), Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton (Miss Potter) as young women caught up in hellacious happenings at a girls' boarding school. Given this is way more indie movie than genre exercise, distributors may struggle to work out effective marketing strategies for February in the short term, but over the long haul it looks destined for cult status.

Set in a vaguely contemporary time frame without ever being specific about the actual date, the plot unfolds largely at Bramford, an isolated all-girls Catholic boarding school located somewhere up North judging by the landscape and amount of snow on the ground. (A dilapidated agricultural college in Ontario served as location.) Chapter headings named after the three main female characters create a tripartite structure that loops back and forth in time. Naturally, everything's interconnectedness is revealed only at the end, admittedly with a bit of cinematic license that some purists might object to.

As students and staff prepare to leave for a mid-term break, it becomes clear that the parents of freshman Katherine (Shipka) are not coming to collect her, and more worryingly haven't called to explain why. Her opening nightmare about a crashed car might be a clue. Anxious but unnervingly still, she's distressed that not even the school's priest Father Brian (Greg Ellwand) will be there to see her "performance," meaning presumably a song she croons at a school assembly while accompanying herself on piano. (It transpires that Shipka also has a lovely singing voice to match her proven acting chops.)

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Senior Rose (Boynton) is also stranded at school, claiming her own parents got mixed up about which day to come for her. Headmaster Mr. Gordon (Peter James Haworth) asks Rose to keep an eye on Kat, even though also staying behind are two odd spinster "sisters," Ms. Prescott (Elana Krausz) and Ms. Drake (Heather Tod Mitchell) who serve as the school's nurses. Rose, however, has a date that night with a local boy (Peter Gray) whom she fears may have knocked her up. A bit of a mean girl, she mischievously teases Kat that the sisters are Satan worshipers according to school gossip.

Meanwhile, apparently not far away, a young woman in her twenties named Joan (Roberts) with haunted eyes, bad memories, and a blood-red coat ill-suited to the weather, is slowly making her way in the direction of Bramford. Encountering her at a bus station, a middle-aged couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly), clearly carrying their own emotional baggage in addition to the suitcases in the trunk and the mysterious flowers on the backseat, offer to give her a lift.

As with so many of the best mystery-horror films, the optimum way to enjoy a first viewing of this is try to remain as ignorant as possible about what happens. That said, it also brims with tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-them details that will repay repeat viewings. Likewise, a second time round might also be an opportunity to appreciate further Julie Kirkwood's sinister cinematography which uses backlighting and the darkest exposures possible to achieve maximum creepitude. The same goes for the immaculate blend of sound design (credited to Allan Fung) and subsonic, bone-vibrating original music by Elvis Perkins, the director's brother.

The two siblings are the sons of the actor Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Psycho) and the photographer Berry Berenson, and Osgood Perkins writes in his director's statement about how the film is subtextually informed by the sense of loss prompted by the abrupt death of his parents. (Anthony died of AIDS in 1992 and Berenson almost exactly nine years later during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.) Grief, unarticulated but no less present, is like an invisible blister on a burn throughout, breaking only with the tears and despair displayed by Roberts in her astonishing final scene.


Director/screenwriter: Osgood Perkins
Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton
Producers: Adrienne Biddle, Rob Paris, Bryan Bertino, Robert Menzies, Alphonse Ghossein
Executive producers: Carissa Buffel, Kevin Matasow, Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Wintersterin, Stephen Hays, Peter Graham
Director of photography: Julie Kirkwood
Editor: Brian Ufberg
Production designers: Shane Boucher, Lisa Soper
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Composer: Elvis Perkins
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Sales: Highland Film Group
No rating, 93 minutes