It was a tragic loss to the Horror world when Jack Ketchum passed away, back in 2018, doubly sad because he remains fairly lesser-known outside of the most obsessive fans. Over the course of his career, he penned many a gruesome tale of violence, rarely dipping his toes into the supernatural and instead focusing his witty and unflinching eye over the extreme fringes of the North American family unit. In the 90s, filmmakers saw the untapped potential in his works and began adapting for screen. Viewers and critics were suitably disgusted and delighted and equal measure. Perhaps his biggest hit came in 2011, when long-time fan and friend Lucky McKee directed The Woman, having co-conspired on the book of the same name. The Woman was the Pollyanna McIntosh led sequel to Offspring and continued the story of a cannibal living in the Northeast of the USA. Darlin, concludes (maybe) the story and picks up a number of years after the events of The Woman.
You can probably get away with watching any entry in the trilogy without knowing anything about the other films, or the books. They stand alone fairly well, but knowing the history of the characters and world definitely helps in your potential enjoyment. Pollyanna McIntosh returns as The Woman once again, this time riding shotgun in front of the camera so that she can direct. The first thing that is obvious about the direction and the script is that this is, and I hesitate to use the word ‘lighter’ given the material, but it is a funnier film. There wasn’t much to laugh about in The Woman, but Darlin works well as a comedy in places. When McIntosh is on screen, she is treated, perhaps uncomfortably, as a bit of a Freddy Krueger icon in the Elm Street sequels. She’s still terrifying, she’s still mostly mute, but her interactions with certain characters and the situations she finds herself in, from sitting in a car to leading a ragtag group of homeless people, are all amusing. I was expecting another grim tale with little redemption or light, but I found myself enjoying the character play as much as the gore gags.
We open with some vague nods to events which have transpired since the end of the last movie, before a teenage girl (one of the daughters from The Woman, now grown up) appears at a hospital and is hit by an ambulance. She is messy, dirty, and feral. The hospital cleans her, tries to communicate with her, and eventually sends her to a nearby Catholic Boarding school. At the School, the staff try to turn her into a regular member of society, help her reclaim her speech, and teach her in the ways of the Catholic God (read – sexually abuse her). While she meets some sympathetic staff and kids, there is a history and system of abuse which members have been quiet about. The top dog is horrified when he learns that the girl, now called Darlin, is pregnant.
If you’re familiar with the lore of the world, you’ll know that the cannibal family needs babies to keep their line alive, and they’re not picky with how they get them. We learn in flashbacks that previous attempts to grow the family met with tragedy, leading to The Woman sending Darlin to hospital, so they could ensure her baby was born, and so The Woman could take it. While Darlin has been learning how to become a human again, The Woman has been watching, following, and killing anyone who gets in her way. She strikes up a loose partnership with some other women who think they want to be part of a revolution, and it all comes to a head at Darlin’s (insert weird religious ceremony).
The film is not as grim as the last two, and as mentioned, has an amount of humour that I wasn’t expecting. Also unexpected was the performance of Lauryn Canny as Darlin – an exceptional, and hopefully breakthrough showing where she is perfectly believable as the confused, traumatised girl coming to grips with her past, present, and potential future. She’s the star of the movie, and more than deserves praise, attention, and future hit roles. Elsewhere, fellow Walking Dead alumni Cooper Andrews plays a pivotal part, Nora Jane Noone is as good as always, and Bryan Batt ably fills in as the slimy, hands-on Bishop.
While you can take or leave the social commentary aspects of the movie, it’s worthwhile calling out that Darlin isn’t just a story about a bunch of cannibals clashing with society. Like much of Ketchum’s work, even though this isn’t a Ketchum original, it has something to say about Othering, about civilized society, and about who the bad guys really are or whether or not there’s much difference between civilization and barbarity or good and evil. The blood still flows freely, though it isn’t as bleak or cynical an outlook as what you would typically find coming from Ketchum’s brain, and in McIntosh we have an accomplished actor showing she can be equally interesting as a writer/director, and a breakout star in Canny.
Let us know what you think of Darlin in the comments!