[Review] Darlin' is a Camp Classic in the Making

Boy. People are going to hate this movie.

In fact, as I was sitting in my living room, watching the events unfold in front of me, I arched my eyebrow and wrote in my notes, “what the fuck am I watching?” Tonally, Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’ is all over the place, to the point of incoherence. The casting choices were peculiar and, again, made me arch my brow. I was actively afraid that my brow would be stuck that way. And then I started laughing, incredulously at what I was seeing unfolding on screen. I had to go scour the internet for reviews, something I never do before writing…but I had to know. Was I missing something? If I was, it seemed that most of the festival reviewers were missing it, as well, since it’s sitting at 33% as of the time of writing.

“A direct sequel to 2011’s The Woman,” IMDb tells us and this is factual, as it picks up with The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) trudging through snow with her adopted (…I guess?) daughter Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny), who has become just as feral in the time since Lucky McKee’s The Woman. The Woman drops Darlin’ off at a hospital where the feral teenager bites and snarls at everyone but is calmed down by Tony (Cooper Andrews), an attending nurse.

This particular hospital is run by a church that also runs a Catholic boarding schools for young girls, run by The Bishop (Bryan Batt). Zipping through the plot, The Bishop sees Darlin’ as a way of raising money for the failing church and decides he wants to civilize the feral girl so that the press can see how powerful religion and God is. At the boarding school, we meet Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) and a ragtag bunch of girls that pretty much cover all of the tropes. The creepy twins Lottie (Allison Gobuzzi) and Lola (Lauren Gobuzzi), the delinquent Bug (Mackenzie Graham) and the rebellious Billy (Maddie Nichols), who quickly befriends Darlin’.

Meanwhile, The Woman continues her murderous and cannibalistic streak, particularly after she discovers that Darlin’ is no longer at the hospital. This event causes her to go on the hunt to track down where her daughter has gone and she will do anything to get her back. What follows is, in some ways, a similar story of The Woman, with The Church becoming a stand-in for the the Cleek family…except everything feels slightly off-kilter.

I should have known what I was watching the moment openly gay actor Bryan Batt waltzed into the scene, decked out in Catholic Bishop realness. I should have realized it when it’s revealed that the nurse Tony is a married gay man who works for a Catholic-run hospital, even though the same organization denied his husband and him a child from the orphanage because of their sexuality. It should have been evident with the villains painted so fucking broadly, they might as well have been twirling their mustaches and smiling maniacally. That the wildly competing tonal shifts and genres at play were actually completely purposeful and that a movie that ends with a Magnificent Seven posse of homeless women led by a scene-chewing Mona (Eugenie Bondurant), dressed in foppish garments and foolishly brandishing a six shooter, is actually a hilarious parody of Jack Ketchum’s previous film.

Darlin’ is camp. It was right in front of us, from the interviews with writer/director/actor Pollyanna where she states, "If I'm going to direct a horror movie, I'd have to be the one writing it because I have to make it personal." and in others where she asks, "How could I possibly follow Lucky?"

How? By completely going in a different direction. By being the answer to the people who thought The Woman was misogynistic garbage and the Sundance “run-outs.” It’s here, that we can see that the only possible way to take the story from Lucky’s ending is to completely retell the story, from a decidedly queer direction. I don’t know Pollyanna’s affiliation with the LGBTQ+ community, but this film is decidedly as queer as it is campy.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about camp ever since listening to the Shock Waves/Attack of the Queerwolf crossover on camp, but when your movie ends with Control by queer performer Dorian Electra and an impromptu after-credits dance scene, you have to finally admit that the movie is purposefully in the camp, well, camp.

And this is going to piss a lot of people off, whether they realize the intentionality of the tone or not because most people are going to go into this, expecting the same level of brutality that Jack Ketchum’s past work and McKee’s movie reveled in. Ketchum himself passed away before the movie was complete, but it’s dedicated to him and I can just imagine him smiling, as Pollyanna describes it: "He actually got to visit us on set a month before he passed away, and he was grinning from ear to ear."

Ketchum was a pretty ambiguous person and very reclusive so it’s difficult to know much about him. But, still, I can imagine him on set, smirking. And as Darlin’ dances with a vacuum in the after credits scene, maybe thinking to himself, “yas queen.”