Genre star Pollyanna McIntosh has been tied to Jack Ketchum’s feral ‘Woman’ for the best part of a decade by this point, first taking on the character all the way back in 2009. And whilst this third outing for the particularly likeable, if nameless cannibal (following directly on from Lucky McKee’s 2011 cult favourite The Woman, itself a quasi-sequel to 09’s Offspring) sees her take something of a narrative backseat, this lean, mean, teen-focussed horror drama is actually all the better for it.

That isn’t to say that McIntosh’s many talents aren’t put to good use (Darlin’ marks her feature debut as a writer/director), but this is a particularly timely film that draws its dark laughs, shredding tension and just general all-round nastiness, from a very different well to its precursors.

Darlin’ instead focusses mostly on the eponymous daughter of the Cleek family (those chirpy suburbanites from McKee’s film), years-on from the massacre that’s left her following in the footsteps of McIntosh’s savage tribeswoman. Now on the verge of womanhood herself, Lauryn Canny’s brilliantly torn Darlin’ finds herself thrust out of the care of her adoptive mother, and locked behind the gates of a particularly insidious Catholic boarding school for girls, forced to learn ‘proper’ living from stoney nuns and a particularly repulsive bishop.

The repressed-teen-forced-into-authoritarian-religion angle isn’t entirely new, true, but the harsher twist here is very much embraced and McIntosh certainly mines a hefty amount of neat laughs and clever growing-pains parallels from it for sure. The coming-of-age side to Darlin’’s story is by far the most natural, and Canny in particular is clever to lean into both the emotional and the slapstick moments with equal amounts of gusto.

The sad truth of the film’s script though is that it very frustratingly splits its narrative – not quite 50/50, but enough for it to lose a great deal of the flow found in its brightest moments. And the B-side to the thoughtful teen/horror mash-up is just more of the same wandering feral ‘Woman’ character from McIntosh, filling out entire sequences with very little pay-off, and feeling like they’re only plodded in throughout to serve an ending that could have happily (and probably vitally) been re-written around her very existence.

Because although McIntosh herself is still in fine form, the character just really doesn’t seem to have much grounding here beyond some flashback nods or perhaps a passing-the-baton cameo in the opening minutes. Instead she’s wheeled-out in keeping with the rough-guided trilogy, and Darlin’’s story feels chopped and changed as a result, diluting what should’ve been a nimble twist on the female-focussed coming-of-age drama (a sortof punk rock Lady Bird) and shifting it into an often off-kilter stab at re-capturing some cult magic.

There’s still so much to love about Darlin’, and during its heights it very welcomely stands in line with the likes of Ginger Snaps, and other teen-twinged horrors of that ilk. But sadly it never quite finds enough of a flow, and instead survives as little more than a perfectly serviceable follow-up to the particularly liked sequel of a largely forgotten riff on The Hills Have Eyes.

Darlin’ was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.