Though his books were seldom issued by major publishing houses, recently deceased author Jack Ketchum has become one of the big screen’s more frequently adapted U.S. novelists. “Darlin’” isn’t based on a Ketchum tome, per se, but it does have a through line to his work: It’s a sequel to Lucky McKee’s 2011 “The Woman,” which followed Andrew van den Houten’s 2009 “Offspring,” whose print source was a sequel to Ketcham’s 1980 debut novel “Off Season.” Ketchum earned writing credits on both films, and “Off Season” was the start of a series about a cannibalistic clan in the woods of rural Maine. At the end of “The Woman,” the titular feral captive of a “civilized” family kills her keepers and returns to the wilderness, the family’s children in tow.
While “The Woman” was a queasy psychological horror-thriller about abuse in many forms, the much less serious “Darlin’” picks up some years later with the prior film’s youngest survivor making a rough transition to “normal” society at a Catholic charitable home. Though superficially polished, this first feature from “Walking Dead” thesp-turned-writer/director Pollyanna McIntosh (who played the feral captive in “The Woman”) proves an increasingly wobbly mix of comedy, horror and social critique, its heavy-handed indictment of stereotypical religious hypocrisy finally dragging the enterprise into caricature. While there was gallows humor in Ketchum’s cruel literary universe, this ultimately glib concoction doesn’t do much credit to his legacy — even though the film is dedicated to him, and he’s credited as a producer.
Growing to adolescence in the great outdoors, her older siblings having died off over time, Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) — so named for the inscription on a charm bracelet that’s her sole memento from domesticated life — is deposited at a hospital entrance by the ferocious Woman (McIntosh again) for reasons gradually revealed in flashback. But she’s so unused to regular human contact that she has to be sedated upon arrival, acting like a panicked wild animal toward everyone save a sympathetic gay nurse (Cooper Andrews, another “Walking Dead” alum).
Once slightly tamed, she’s turned over to a Catholic boarding school for wayward girls. There, her new allies are staffer Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) and rebellious fellow student Billy (Maddie Nichols). More dubious support comes from the Bishop (Bryan Batt of “Mad Men”), a smirking cleric who intends to leverage her presumed progress from hellcat to docile maiden for fundraising purposes.
Mute and illiterate to begin with, Darlin’ gradually adjusts to this new life, as the initially wary other girls accept her into their little community. But assimilation here also means absorbing the more rigid authority figures’ hellfire-and-damnation teachings, with Darlin’ taking all too literally the notion that she may have a “devil inside her” (potential spoilers ahead this paragraph, starting with the explanation that she is in fact pregnant). Assuming Darlin’ has given birth already, the Woman is prepared to reclaim both young mother and infant. Discovering them long gone from the hospital, she goes on a rampaging search, the body count of which seems to exist simply to lend the film sufficient marketable genre content.
The tone of the Louisiana-shot “Darlin’” wanders somewhat arbitrarily from “Nell”-type drama to satire to horror and comedy-horror. The worst of it is its crude indictment of the Church, which has certainly earned skepticism with its response to myriad scandals in recent years, but still isn’t very effectively lambasted by figures as cartoonish as the Bishop, or a late-arriving Cardinal (Thomas Francis Murphy). Batt’s performance adds the subtlety of an anvil-drop to a movie that exhibits an already hamfisted approach, so it’s inevitable his character should turn out to be a pedophile in addition to being a generally manipulative creep.
Even sillier is the plot development that eventually throws the Woman in with a group of homeless prostitutes and crazies led by Eugenie Bondurant’s scenery-chewing Mona. Stirred to action by their john-devouring newbie, they turn into a “Magnificent Seven”-like slow-mo horde of vengeance.
Replete with a sort of MeToo anthem over the closing credits, the film’s too-up-front politics are ostensibly admirable. Yet they emerge as laughable in this awkward goulash of lurid pulp fiction, gore and coming-of-age earnestness. A feminist, pro-gay message is like anything else in storytelling: To be successfully delivered, it must be sufficiently contextualized within general narrative logic and character psychology. The longer “Darlin’” goes on, the more it loses sight of that basic authorial necessity. If the film had been framed as a fable, many of its contrivances might have worked. But “Darlin’” isn’t sophisticated enough to make that imaginative leap.
The younger actors here are instructed to play things naturalistically, and they come off fairly well. Those playing adult figures, though, are all over the map, as is McIntosh’s film. There’s some cohesion provided by the competent tech/design collaborators, who lend the movie a professionally smooth surface. But its content grows so tonally awry that by the end, you’re not sure to what extent McIntosh is serious or joking — nor is there much indication that she knows, either.