With Darlin’, Pollyanna McIntosh Is Part of the Rising Tide of Female Horror Directors
Time for a bloody change
Pollyanna McIntosh has always wanted to be a director. Scratch that – she's always been a director: The Scottish actress began directing theatre fresh out of drama school in London and continued directing plays when she moved to Los Angeles. "It was never a question of, 'Do I get to go and direct?'" says McIntosh. "It just made sense."
After making her first short film, she began prepping her feature debut, but it was postponed due to her recurring role as Jadis on AMC's The Walking Dead. In hindsight, that delay proved fortuitous for McIntosh, who received a call from producer and filmmaker Andrew van den Houten with an offer to direct another film: a sequel to Lucky McKee's 2011 horror movie, The Woman (itself a sequel to van den Houten's Offspring).
It was an easy decision for McIntosh, who had played the eponymous lead in McKee's film, a feral woman discovered by a religious lawyer who brings her home and attempts to "civilize" her by violent means. "It felt like a really natural and cool choice" to revisit that world, said McIntosh, who decided the sequel should instead focus on a different female character. There was just one thing she needed to resolve first: "If I'm going to direct a horror movie, I'd have to be the one writing it," she said, "because I have to make it personal." And so Darlin' – which premieres at SXSW this week – was born.
In The Woman, Darlin' is the very young daughter of the lawyer who relentlessly abused McIntosh's character. As McIntosh described her, Darlin' "was raised in a conservative home and had learned about God, but had a very screwed-up family. Morals were expected in the house and yet not followed by the parents." At the end of McKee's film, the Woman takes Darlin' away from her hypocritical family and into the woods. Ten years later, the now-teenage Darlin' – played by Lauryn Canny – is taken in by a cunning, opportunistic bishop (Bryan Batt) who wants to use her for his own personal gain. Building on the time she'd already spent in the world of The Woman, McIntosh based the script partially on stories she read about feral children as well as the Catholic Church's notorious abuse scandals.
Up until the opening moments of Darlin', the title character has been raised for most of her life in the wilderness, without conventional parental figures; she was never exposed to the media or social gender constructs. As such, she's never experienced internalized misogyny, let alone felt it from external sources the way many women in the real world have. That includes women in the film industry, which has long been plagued by gender inequity. McIntosh believes that's definitely changing, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement and a long overdue – and ongoing – reckoning in Hollywood. "It's such a strange thing to still be talking in this day and age about this stuff," she said, but she's optimistic. "Watching Angela Kang come onto The Walking Dead as our new showrunner, it went from feeling like there's not that many female directors around to 'Oh, half the directors this season will be female.'"
That change has reached the SXSW Midnighters track, where Darlin' premieres alongside a pair of horror films from two more women making their solo feature directorial debuts: Roxanne Benjamin and Abigail Blackmore bring Body at Brighton Rock and Tales From the Lodge, respectively. Like some of the best contemporary horror films, these titles transcend expectations of women in the horror genre. At the heart of Darlin' is what McIntosh calls a "classic story," and one with which many women – herself included – can identify: "You go off and find what you already had – what you were already capable of doing."
There's a wealth of complexity in Darlin’, which takes a nuanced approach to a young woman's relationships with men, women, and society as a whole. It's not dissimilar from how McIntosh views The Woman, a film she readily admits is difficult to watch. "One of the most fascinating things for me is that on a very visceral level, we were watching someone being held back from their natural state. We're watching someone trapped in a world they were not considered in, someone expected to be a way they were not [in order] to please somebody else."
This idea felt like a natural inroad to Darlin', which explores comparable territory from a female perspective. That point of view is apparent throughout the film, particularly with regard to the depiction of Darlin' herself. In the hands of a male filmmaker, key scenes might easily devolve into the gratuitous and needlessly graphic; but in the hands of McIntosh, there is a tangible empathy. "It was very important that she wasn't objectified in any way, and I think we've achieved that," said McIntosh, and the end result is a testament to the value of the female perspective. "I haven't met a woman who can't tell stories from a male perspective, because we're dealing with it all the bloody time," she explained. "We live in a very masculine society, a very patriarchal society, still. So we also have the benefit of the experience of that society. We're not coming from 'women's world' into filmmaking, we're coming from 'the world.' You get a bonus with a female because you get both perspectives." Men find it harder to write from a female perspective, she said, because "they don't have our experience and they can't speak for us."
Although the sequel is about Darlin', McIntosh found it difficult to resist reprising her role as the Woman, who has a small but crucial part in the story. She described the character and the experience of inhabiting her as "freeing," both as a viewer and a performer. "Stepping into that character means that I alleviate myself from all social expectations, both physically and mentally. ... [The Woman is] someone who doesn't even know what people think feminine should be," said McIntosh. To get into character, she starts by "looking at the things that make me feel like I should walk a certain way or talk a certain way, the things that have been instilled in me from a very young age. And the Woman doesn't have any of them." These behaviors come naturally to the Woman, but can feel wrong for someone who's spent her life conforming to prescribed gender norms. McIntosh said, "Taking that permission into the real world, for me, has been quite fun."
MIDNIGHTERSSaturday, March 9, 11:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 12, 11pm, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 16, 11am, Alamo South Lamar