A feral teenager shows up at a Catholic hospital, attracting immediate attention from a kindly nurse and piquing the interest of the local diocese – specifically a home for girls looking for a soul to save and the publicity that will secure some much-needed funding. Thus begins Darlin’, Pollyanna McIntosh’s writing and directorial debut that follows the rehabilitation of this teenager – thoroughly exploring the contradictory morals and motivations at play in this process – and her nonverbal guardian whose incentive to send her charge to the hospital in the first place gradually come to light. Between these exquisite characterisations by Lauryn Canny and McIntosh are moments of graphic violence (including much cannibalism), compressed coming-of-age tropes, catastrophic misunderstandings, and a scathing judgement of Catholicism as an institution – though it stops short of condemning all who work within it. Darlin’ has so much going on and going for it that it may become a victim of its own ideas, but the audacity of its 101 minutes imprint firmly on the mind.
A note of context before we move forward: this might be McIntosh’s first time in the director’s chair but it is not her first time playing ‘The Woman’. She appeared as the unnamed cannibal in Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring and Lucky McKee’s The Woman. The first film is based on Jack Ketchum’s novel of the same name, which is in turn a sequel to his novel Off Season – a book that provoked such a strong critical reaction to its extreme violence that it was removed from circulation after the first printing, returning in 1999 in an even-more-gory format. The Woman is an original film taking inspiration from McIntosh’s character, whom a friend of van Houten’s begged the director not to kill in Offspring in order to expand this universe.
Darlin’s late addition suits the chronology of these films well, as she ages from child to teenager between these films. That said, the film stands entirely alone from the rest of the canon, providing a compelling and comprehensible watch regardless of one’s prior knowledge. This reviewer watched Darlin’ before The Woman, unaware of its lineage, and thought the mystery of the feral cannibals created an almost mythical atmosphere that heightened each shocking turn of events. If watching alongside McIntosh’s other performances, a previous understanding of Darlin’s and The Woman’s existence might deepen motivations and meaning from the beginning.
Wikipedia calls Darlin’ a ‘social issues horror film’; in the broadest sense this is true, but the phrase implies something less nasty and fun in its execution. None of the characters feel like stereotypes or genre props (well, none of the female characters do – the two primary men function more as the kindly protector and exploitative priest). The film is intent on exploring the inherent good and evil in humans, both individually and structurally (here, the Church), even before The Woman and her adoptive daughter even make an appearance; this, of course, dials everything up to eleven as they clash with those who attempt to aid and/or change the women. Every performer fully commits to this wild yet recognisable world; while hindered by lacklustre dialogue, reactions find ground in the all-too-familiar power structures driving the horror.
Blood and gore flow plentifully, but these appalling sequences punctuate its themes and characters – notably the mesmerising and horrifying late domestication of the titular character – rather than define the film. Watching Darlin’ be taught language and ‘manners’ from the nuns is excruciating; the audience is aware of her and her family’s propensity for human consumption and unabashed brutality but the rigid structure imposed by all but the genuine care of Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) – battling demons of her own – creates a genuine emotional bond between the two. On the side, The Woman’s exploits terrify; her own moral guidelines are clearly at work as she slashes her way through undergrowth and human bodies, but the uncanniness and unfamiliarity of these rules do not put viewers at ease.
As the film progresses, Darlin’ picks up language and makes friends, but the extremes of good and evil, forbidden and holy peddled by the Catholic girls’ school in contrast to her previous life leads to the only possibly, hair-raisingly graphic outcome. The reason Darlin’s adoptive mother is so keen to get her to hospital in the first place comes to light in a conversation that stretches between horrifying and hilarious, as Darlin’ searches for words to describe sex, cannibalism, and other encounters far outside those of the increasingly disturbed priest’s morality or experience. This in turn sets up a misinterpretation that leads to an unforgettably, gloriously over-the-top finale.
It is interesting to note that, out of all the films in this loose franchise, Darlin’ is the only one directed by a woman. Its violence feels less exploitative than that shown in The Woman; while both films are graphic, Darlin’ does not rely on sexual violence to convey trauma or villainy. Additionally, while the antagonists of both films are men the patriarchal, institutional violence inflicted in Darlin’ speaks to forces of oppression rather than random brutality. The on-screen violence – notably the cannibalism – is salacious and shocking by nature, but its almost matter-of-fact presentation creates a twisted, logical reaction to this institutional savagery. The distinct female gaze of McIntosh’s debut introduces more complex ideas of person-hood and morality; while we root for The Woman against her tormentors, she is shown capable of great cruelty just as Sister Jennifer and nurse Tony (Cooper Andrews) seek only the best for her daughter. Darlin’ may be the blank slate in this scenario, impressionable enough to be moulded by her parental figures with her humanity seeking connection and meaning in all scenarios.
Darlin’ sits between genuine anger and moral probing and a good old-fashioned monster movie – except in this case, the monsters come from both the forest and the churches. The film has its flaws – its script is workmanlike at best, and it may lose some impact in going for such extremes – but its view of feral womanhood and patriarchal destruction is hard to forget.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie