Eat or Be EatenPollyanna McIntosh Brings Barbarism to Her Directorial Debut

Pollyanna McIntosh as The Woman in Darlin’ (Photo credit: Dark Sky Films)

Pollyanna McIntosh, who garnered our attention in 2017 when she joined The Walking Dead as the mysterious Anne, has been acting in independent films since she left Scotland for London at the age of 16. But it wasn’t until McIntosh portrayed a violent, feral woman in Lucky Mckee’s surprise 2011 hit The Woman that she established herself as a burgeoning horror icon.

Darlin’, which premiered at South by Southwest in March 2019, is a standalone sequel to The Woman and the third film in the loose trilogy that began with Andrew van den Houten’s 2009 film Offspring. All three films follow McIntosh’s Woman, the leader of a clan of cannibals, but Darlin’ focuses on the Woman’s surrogate daughter, Darlin’ (played with vampiric allure by newcomer Lauren Canny). When Darlin’ falls ill, the Woman leaves her at a hospital, expecting to reunite once the girl is healed, but as doctors and nurses marvel at the “wild girl,” a shady Catholic priest played by Mad Men’s Bryan Batt sweeps in.

Under the guise of trying to save the young girl, he takes her from the hospital as a ploy to raise funds for his church. Though Darlin’ is chock-full of cold-blooded murder as the Woman searches for her lost child, the movie doubles as a comedy that reconciles barbarism and civilization and captures Darlin’s complex upbringing. I spoke with McIntosh about her directorial debut, how she gets into character, and her perspective on the current state of horror.

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You’ve been a part of the horror community for over a decade. How have things changed for women in horror film and TV since you started as an actress and then as a director?

I didn’t work with a female director until I worked with Melanie Light on a [2014] short [film] called The Herd. Since then I’ve only worked with one other female director in a horror feature; I’ve had three female directors in TV. It went from 0 percent to something as high as 6 or 10 percent. There’s [still] a long way to go. But the female gaze is becoming more acceptable and [even] more encouraged. A lot of people and companies [are] asking me to come and direct for them. I think it has a hell of a lot to do with [companies] needing to up [their] numbers; it’s almost embarrassing not to have [at least one] woman on your slate. It’s a start! It’s a shame [it took] sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement [for women’s issues to become] a part of the national conscience.

Women being featured in and given prominent roles in horror isn’t new, but the kinds of stories they’re able to star in have begun shifting. For example, there are so many female tropes, such as the “final girl.”  Why do you think we’re seeing a change here?

The writers and directors I’ve worked with were open and interested in [making] the film better, and they were open to suggestions from a female perspective. It’s not necessarily a bunch of misogynists running the industry, but it is a very limited perspective [since] we’ve lived in a very male-dominated world for a very long time. Horror is improving, though its always been a genre where there were more edgy female characters because it’s always been a genre about outsiders and underdogs. Percentage-wise there’s more women watching horror than men, so it’s about time that there [are] more female voices.

Have you always been specifically interested in horror?

No. My love and understanding of horror comes from being cast in [horror movies], going to a lot of horror-film festivals, and realizing how much interesting filmmaking there is in the genre. I was exposed to only the mainstream, commercial horror films [growing up]. Even then I’d be scared shitless. When I was young, my parents were very strict about what we could watch, so whenever I went over to a mate’s house whose parents were more lax, we would get the worst movies we could think of to watch. Monsters I could handle. I like Quentin Tarantino so I [could handle] excessive violence. But [those nights] I just couldn’t sleep! It was just awful. So [horror] is not something that I have a nostalgic love for, though I loved the classics like The Shining. I’ve obviously grown into [the genre] and realized its possibilities.

What does your family say now about your turn to horror?

[Laughs.] They’re happy when I do comedies or dramas—things they can actually watch. I also think they need to be educated. They’ve seen The Woman and really get that movie, [but] I wouldn’t go so far as to say they enjoy it. They have respect for it. I brought my family to see The Woman when it premiered at Fright Fest in London and I took them all out [of the movie theater] for the rape scene. They did not need to watch that. I [brought] them back in before all the murders started.

What was it like to reprise your role as the Woman for Darlin’?

I [already] have the Woman in my bones. I feel that I know her very well, so I didn’t need to do the usual work in pre-production, which was convenient because I was also shooting The Walking Dead at the same time. It was a pleasure to get back under [the Woman’s] skin. The only thing that’s tricky is that the makeup is extensive. There were a couple of days when I did the makeup myself to save time, which was kind of fun. But [it] was frustrating not being able to see through the [camera] lens when I’m in a scene. I’m close to the actors so I knew what I was getting with them, but [not] for myself.

How do you tap into playing that character? I imagine it’s a difficult role, as there’s very little speaking and it’s very primal. Do you have any particular sources of inspiration?

I have a mood board of images that I look at during makeup. Sitting Bull was an inspirational figure for me. Eddie Izzard. A pack of hyenas for the family or pack element [in the film] and the complete disregard for propriety [that the Woman] has and relishes. I also did a lot of research on big cats and wolf packs, spent a lot of time alone in the woods, [and] worked out in a really weird way, doing leapfrogs and stuff. Being in [the Woman’s body] is about shedding all of the societal expectations of the female body, which is freeing for me. You can let it all hang out. I went around barefoot a lot, which is not the most practical thing on a set, but it was a great pleasure to not have to fuss around with wardrobe. I decided that [in Darlin’ the Woman] would find a coat, like the way Sherlock Holmes takes a piece of clothing from every one of his cases and wears it. They were from her kills, and she takes this big coat from her first victim. I was so happy because I didn’t want to wear that cavewoman bikini thing I wore [in the other movies].

I didn’t want to be naked. Though there is nudity in [Darlin’] early on, [it] felt like a palpable representation of the female body without eroticizing it. Women [are] covered in filth and very hairy, living in this wild environment. That was something I really wanted to get. I wanted to confront people with big muff if possible! I wanted to represent female nudity without it being for anybody else.

Horror is improving, though it’s always been a genre where there were more edgy female characters because it’s always been a genre about outsiders and underdogs.

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Darlin’ is more of an overt comedy than Offspring or The Woman. The Woman is also much more humanized. What led you to make those choices?

It’s all about the perspective you’re watching her from. I wanted to play with that. I wanted to see her meet other women and people in society. I loved the idea of her being assumed [to be] a homeless woman because of the way that she looks; that was a way for her to go in [to the world] silently and not be questioned. I wanted to take the Woman to the city and explore how she communicates with other people when she speaks in moans and grunts. When you’re trying to do a sequel that’s also a standalone, it’s kind of a head fuck because even though I have so much respect for The Woman, I didn’t want to emulate it.

Why did you decide to shift this universe into the world of the Catholic Church? Church and churches as a site of terror is a staple of horror, but did you have any particular source of inspiration?

[When] I was researching feral children, I discovered a story about a western priest in east India [who] claimed to have found two feral girls who were sisters, [but] they were [really] just two girls with special needs. He lied to bring attention and money to his church and to himself. In Rosemary’s Baby, the devil is taking over [a] woman’s body, but in Darlin’, the church is taking over [a] woman’s body, and I think that’s more realistic and scary. I also thought a hospital [was] the natural place to begin [the story]. One in six Americans are treated in Catholic hospitals, [and] the rules [in] regard to abortions are different than any other type of hospital. That’s something that [got] me going. And that goes without mentioning the terrible state of abuse in the [Catholic] Church! I didn’t want to watch a film dragging us through that particular experience, but I do hope it brings up those elements in different ways.

In many ways, Darlin’ is a coming-of-age narrative that in many ways and explores themes of motherhood. How does this play into the film’s broader interest in the dichotomy between civilized and savage?

Being a parent, a human being, and an animal is not a civilized situation. It’s a part of nature. Animals are at their most primal in nature and [their most] ambitious when they have something to protect. So giving the Woman this ward in the form of Darlin’ meant that I could really go kill happy and give her a good reason to do it. I wanted to express the animal side [in] all of us. I find it hard to root for a killer, so I needed to give her purpose. She’s vicious and scary but she’s got a reason [to be].

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by Beatrice Loayza
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Beatrice Loayza is a film critic and culture writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in MUBI Notebook, Sight & Sound, i-D, Hyperallergic, and other outlets. She is an unconventional Capricorn but a Capricorn nonetheless.