So there’s this character called “The Woman.” Growling, feral berserker covered in grime, part of basically a modern day lost tribe, wild cannibals living like savages in forests, hills and caves, occasionally invading civilization to hunt meat or steal children. She was created by Jack Ketchum, I think for the book Offspring, though that’s a sequel to Off Season, which I haven’t read, so maybe she’s in that too. In the 2009 film OFFSPRING she was played by Pollyanna McIntosh, who later played Jadis on The Walking Dead and Angel on Hap and Leonard. I didn’t think OFFSPRING worked, but I’m glad McIntosh was so good in it that they made her survive and let Lucky McKee direct a sequel in 2011. He wrote both the movie THE WOMAN and a book version in collaboration with Ketchum.
In that story, a middle class dad spots The Woman while hunting, captures her, chains her up in his shed, tries to so-called civilize her. It’s an outrageous allegory about misogyny and generational abuse, and when I rewatched it last year I thought it was even better and more relevant than it seemed when it came out. It holds up as one of the best horror movies of the 2000s.
Now The Woman is back in DARLIN’, released today on blu-ray and dvd. It’s another interesting standalone story and it’s written and directed by McIntosh herself. There are some funny behind the scenes shots in the extras with her directing in full costume or in civilian clothes but caked in dirt makeup.
Almost a decade after the A+ crazy ending of the last film, The Woman is still living feral with Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny, THE VON TRAPP FAMILY: A LIFE OF MUSIC), the youngest member of the Cleek family, now a non-verbal teen barbarian. If she knows the subtitled grunt language used in OFFSPRING, we never see her use it. For reasons that will become clear later, The Woman abandons Darlin’ at a small hospital, where a kind nurse named Tony (the lovable Cooper Andrews of The Walking Dead and SHAZAM!) – after an initial “Holy shit!” reaction to her leaping off a gurney and scurrying away on all fours – makes a connection with her as he tries to calm her and clean her up.
Then he has to leave her to St. Philomenas, a small Catholic boarding school for troubled girls. The Bishop (Bryan Batt, BRAWLER) tasks Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone, THE DESCENT, THE DESCENT PART 2, DOOMSDAY) with teaching her to speak. He’s up front about his hope that the promotional value of “saving” a feral girl will stop an impending closure of the school, and is crass in his attempts to take video of her at her most animalistic. “She looks… normal,” he frets at one point. “Perhaps we should dirty her up a bit.” And Sister Jennifer has to get in there and smudge her up.
Darlin’ gets thrown in with a small group of girls (the only students left in the school?), and I love that it actually goes pretty well. They’re not too bad to her, and then she becomes close to Billy (Maddie Nichols, one episode of The Purge tv series) who finds her in the woods when sneaking a smoke, tries to talk to her, plays her music, teaches her to dance. This was sweet even before I made the connection that young Darlin’ in the first film liked to sit outside of The Woman’s enclosure with a radio and play songs for her.
The other girls get less elaboration, but each has little quirks and a funny rapport with the others. One has a pet mouse named Jennifer Lawrence. And they represent different attitudes, some taking their religious education seriously, some considering it just another thing to endure. Darlin’ does start to learn how to communicate and fit in, but she’s not in on the silent agreement of Christianity that you don’t take it totally literally when you talk about devils.
Like THE WOMAN, DARLIN’ operates on a sort of poetic level beyond the horror. Though both (anti?)-heroines have been taught to behave in indefensible ways, we root for them as symbols of free women overcoming male oppressors. The Woman (being loose for the whole movie) serves as a typical movie slasher for a while (she even murders an innocent hospital clown [Jeff Pope, BLACK SNAKE MOAN, Chub from Hap and Leonard]), but things get more interesting when she accidentally teams with a band of feisty homeless women. There’s a great turn where she (SPOILERS) sort of riles them into her revolutionary army against the church and it’s cartoonishly empowering for a second. But the moment they see The Woman acting like The Woman they’re like “Uh… never mind!” and get the fuck out of there.
The Bishop is the only male at the school, and the one in charge, and like the dad in THE WOMAN he’s a broken, disgusting person beneath his facade of righteousness. But because Tony the nurse and his husband (Damon Lipari, WRONG SIDE OF TOWN) are so caring and never reveal an asshole side I’d consider McIntosh’s film a little less cynical about men than McKee’s.
McIntosh seems interested in a theme of people being forced to accept conditional care from religions they don’t subscribe to. The church helped Sister Jennifer beat her drug addiction, but at the cost of being abused by the Bishop, who uses her debt to the church to keep her in place. And he has similar things in mind for Darlin’. However, Darlin’ has too much of The Woman in her to let him get away with it.
The way THE WOMAN ends is so gorgeously insane that any continuation of it runs the risk of paling in comparison to what we imagine (see also: PROMETHEUS to ALIEN: COVENANT). But this at least gives us a gap, only learning the fates of Peggy and Socket (original actors Lauren Ashley Carter and Alexa Marcigliano do return in brief glimpses) in somewhat cryptic flashes. I’m sure The Woman & Friends had some fun adventures we can still dream about until they’re featured in a Saturday morning cartoon series hosted by McIntosh in live action intros and outros.
McIntosh is still fantastic as The Woman. She’s bizarre and menacing and sometimes darkly humorous in the chaos she causes. The broad comedy highlight of the movie is when Tony realizes this strange woman snooping around the hospital is looking for Darlin’ and tries to lure her into his car to bring her to her. Jump cut to him wincing and driving as she hisses and flails in the passenger seat like a terrified cat. Once she calms down she rides with her head out the window like a dog.
Canny gives a similarly great bestial performance, likely more difficult since she also has to slowly integrate speaking into her performance. Before that she’s so convincing at showing no hint of comprehension in her eyes as she watches people speak to her. It’s pretty great that they found this very talented young actress and then she got to be directed by someone who had already played a feral character in two previous movies.
Unsurprisingly, DARLIN’ is no THE WOMAN. You can’t catch that lightning again. This one is a little more familiar and its themes aren’t as vital, or don’t hit as squarely on target. But it seems personal to McIntosh, and it’s such an enjoyable and different exploration of these fascinating characters, an engrossing character piece that builds to a properly crazy climax. Like, there’s a row of girls in communion dresses vomiting as just one little side detail. So I wouldn’t mind if The Woman and Darlin’ keep coming back every several years, with different directors, settings and scenarios each time, like they used to do with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequels.