Darlin’ has followed a long and odd trajectory leading to its creation. This is actually the third film in a sort of trilogy, which started with 2009’s Offspring, directed by Andrew van den Houten and based on a Jack Ketchum novel which itself was a sequel to his 1980 novel Off Season about a feral cannibal tribe living off the coast of Maine. Two years after Offspring, director Lucky McKee and Ketchum teamed up to make The Woman, which followed the only remaining cannibal, The Woman, wounded in the woods. She’s retrieved by a family that seeks to tame her, and the father proves to be especially perverse (yeah, he has sex with her chained up). The family meets a bloody end, and The Woman escapes to continue her story now, eight years later with van den Houten, McKee, and Ketchum all producing but leaving writing and directing duties up to Pollyanna McIntosh, the person who has embodied The Woman herself for the past decade.
The result is a surprisingly tender and bleak inspection of what it means to become a woman.
Director: Pollyanna McIntosh
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited, VOD)
The Bishop (Bryan Batt) finds our titular Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) in a hospital with no family, name, or understanding of the world around her. She’s hissing and violent, pure animal ferocity, and he sees this as his chance to get some sweet holy credit for trying to tame the girl and make her a part of Christian society. Naturally, he passes this job off to a woman immediately. Soon comes the tempest of Biblical/patriarchal allusions and references that you would expect (and want) from a work of art house feminist horror with Darlin’ attempting to navigate her sins both modern and primal while The Woman tracks her down and dispenses bloody justice along the way.
Darlin’ meanders some--especially with The Woman’s exploits among an independent camp of homeless women--but every branch shows a different side of the same die, for me. McIntosh takes the time to document a continuum of womanhood from the barbaric bloodshed of a tribe that sees childbirth as the only end goal no matter the means, to the fringe collection trying to live on their own terms, to those subdued and punished under religious rule. Darlin’ finds herself somewhere outside it all--neither savage nor saint--and this pull between the rights and wrongs of two extremes is the core of Darlin’s terror.
This is a sure departure for The Woman’s saga, as the previous two films both fit snugly in the subgenre of extreme horror, and Darlin’ never paints the walls with viscera. Its moments of violence are punctuation marks surrounding the existential dread of a young woman’s very weird coming-of-age. Though all three are good movies in their own rights, I can definitely see fans of the previous entries annoyed with the lack of cannibalistic bloodshed here. Conversely, I can also see folks who are brought into this universe thanks to Darlin’ being shocked and dismayed by Offspring and The Woman, not only for their content but also by just how much less stunning they look.
From Darlin’ discovering the wonders of wearing rubber gloves to her filthy and young gnawing on a scrap of charred human meat in the wilderness, McIntosh poetically frames shots with an empathy and emotional depth that even makes cannibalism melancholy and poignant. This (thankfully) isn’t to say that every moment of the film is from the art house school of everything-must-be-very-serious-at-all-times. The Woman guts a hospital clown, which can’t not be funny, and every act of her straightforward retribution-by-stabbing lets Darlin’ free to play with its gory upbringings while aiming its thematic and emotional sights higher.
With one foot in the art house and the other in the grind house, Darlin’ meshes horror worlds in an intimate coming-of-age tale. The blend of imaginative cannibal woman violence with the very real shame, fear, and exploitation of a teenager just learning how to be a woman is striking and sympathetic. It may not please diehard fans of Offspring and The Woman, but this standalone tale could very well shed them and build a cult fan base all its own.