DARLIN’ (2019) Movie Review, Fantasia 2019

Darlin’ Movie Review

Overview: A feral teenage girl is taken into strict Catholic church care and prepared for her First Holy Communion.
Director: Pollyanna McIntosh
Producer: Andrew van den Houten
Starring: Lauryn Canny, Bryan Batt, Nora-Jane Noone

Gavin’s Review

The path to this film is long and winding through multiple mediums going back almost forty years. In summary, Pollyanna McIntosh’s 'Darlin'' (affiliate link) is a sequel to Lucky McKee’s “The Woman” (2011) (affiliate link) which followed Andrew van den Houten’s “Offspring” (2009), (affiliate link) whose print source was a sequel to Jack Ketchum’s 1980 debut novel “Off Season.” (affiliate link) Despite this, the movie is considered “stand alone” because you really do not need to know anything about the previous entries to follow along.

The latest entry is written and directed by Pollyanna McIntosh, who has played The Woman twice before and does so again here. She may best be known from “The Walking Dead”, but it appears she may soon be known for her directing, because she appears to excel at it. McIntosh goes out on the social wing of horror (a hot commodity these days thanks to Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out) without giving up the gut-shredding antics of a slasher film.

The social commentary is ripped fresh from the headlines, striking particularly hard at organized religion. One doctor is accused of thinking about “the church” rather than his patients, and in the same conversation a nurse vents his frustration that the church would not allow him and his same-sex partner to adopt. The current events references are blunt, and may paint the characters far too black and white in their motivations, even to the point of caricature. Yet, as Variety summed it up, “the film’s too-up-front politics are ostensibly admirable.” We cannot help but agree even if the critiques are a bit ham-fisted.

Rather than this discussion of oppressive religion be a one-off scene, the film doubles down. An all-girls Catholic school (where Darlin is forced to attend) learns early on the lesson of Genesis 3:16; namely, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.” In this world’s version of the Roman Catholic Church, the teachings are strict, and especially hard on women. This strikes me as an odd choice. Indeed, there are no end of Bible verses that are unkind to women. But if one was to use a Christian sect to illustrate this, there are far more conservative options than Catholicism (which accepts such things as evolution and sees much of Genesis as an allegory, not literal). For good measure, a predator clergyman is thrown in.

While by and large a “straight” horror film of blood and existential dread, there are darkly humorous moments, like The Woman on a car ride, and the completely bonkers climax you have to see to believe. And what are we to make of a mouse named Jennifer Lawrence?

The response has been mixed to positive. Filmmaker Marie Ketring fears that “because this film tries to tackle so much, it doesn’t completely finish a sentence or thought.” On the other hand, the film did “make me fiercely close my legs more than I ever have in my whole life.” Critic Brian Tallerico says the film “tackles the patriarchy with bloody teeth” and horror ambassador Michael Gingold has declared the film “gruesomely gory … and scathing throughout.”

“Darlin” (affiliate link) is an above-average horror film if you accept it at face value. As Ketring implies, it is not the strong social film it appears to be, and if anything the arguments are no more than a straw man. But if judged not on its subtext but on its narrative and horror tones, McIntosh succeeds in hitting all the right notes. Have we become so jaded that horror films have to be a message and not just entertaining?

The film is a Hood River Entertainment production with Andrew van den Houten producing and Lucky McKee and (the late) Jack Ketchum as executive producers. The film is making the festival rounds from SXSW to Cinepocalypse to Fantasia, and distribution is being handled by MPI, ensuring a home video release by the end of the year, likely from their Dark Sky label.

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