Directed by and starring Polyanna McKintosh, “Darlin’” is the sequel to the 2011 Lucky McKee horror film “The Woman,” which is based on the Jack Ketchum novels “Off Season” and “Offspring.” If I had known that before watching “Darlin,'” I probably would not have been interested, because my kind of horror does not typically include inbred cannibal clans. As a standalone film, however, “Darlin'” is mesmerizing and astonishing with quite a bit of character, sympathy and black humor to go along with the occasional gruesome violence. Lauryn Canny is riveting as the titular feral teen girl, dropped into the middle of a strict (and corrupt) religious environment.
“Darlin'” begins when two naked and filthy women wander towards a hospital and the young one, wearing a bracelet that says DARLIN, is accidentally struck by an arriving ambulance. She is admitted as a mysterious patient, cleaned up by the kind nurse Tony, but eventually transferred to a conservative Catholic school for troubled girls. The older feral woman, played by the terrific McKintosh (the Woman from the McKee film), starts tracking her down, murdering and/or eating people all along the way. But pausing to befriend a handful of homeless women! She is a survivor from the group of feral cannibals in the Ketchum novel, and in “The Woman,” her character is subjected to horrific abuse before she gets her revenge.
Darlin’ slowly learns to speak and befriends some of the other girls, and unwittingly tempts the sexually abusive Bishop (Bryan Batt). But she takes literally the concept that the devil is inside her and becomes obsessed with getting it out. Maddie Nichols is charming as the sweet-natured Billy, who sneaks out to smoke joints and listen to forbidden, secular music. There is this great moment where Darlin’ tells her seriously, absurdly, “I’m afraid my insides are going to come out and kill me,” and Billy stares at her for a second before replying, “Shit, why do you think I smoke so much weed?”
Most of Darlin’s backstory is revealed in pieces through her broken speech, flashbacks and a physical change she can’t hide, just in time for the violent arrival of her former companion. But a lot is left to mystery, especially for those who haven’t seen “The Woman,” and I think that works; I would’ve liked to know more about Darlin’s fate at the end, however. The cast is strong and I enjoyed the mélange of horror, humor, feminism and coming-of-age themes, a combination that works well in other movies like “Ginger Snaps.” Recommended.