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Before she was battling zombies as Jadis on The Walking Dead, actress Pollyanna McIntosh made her mark on horror as a feral cannibal called The Woman. This literal man-eater is as ferocious as she is controversial, sparking criticism of the male filmmakers who shaped her stories. Now, eight years after The Woman ignited outrage at the Sundance Film Festival, McIntosh takes the reins of this equally polarizing horror franchise, making her directorial debut with a real-time sequel, Darlin'.
Following its world premiere at SXSW, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with this daring writer/director/star to discuss the criticisms over and values of her most controversial character and what it's like to helm the next chapter of The Woman's story.
The Woman's path to film and infamy began with horror novelist Jack Ketchum, who wrote two novels about a tribe of cannibals, Off Season and Offspring. The latter Ketchum would adapt into a 2009 movie of the same name, directed by Andrew van den Houten and starring McIntosh as a blood-caked savage. From there, van den Houten would produce a sequel, on which Ketchum would collaborate with emerging horror auteur Lucky McKee. 2011's The Woman followed the capture, torture, rape, and attempted domination of this fascinating cannibal at the hands of a vile family man, which ignited a debate about the movie's depictions of violence and its gender politics.
Was The Woman misogynistic or feminist? Was it a social satire or senseless torture porn? While critics and audiences debated, McIntosh had her mind made up. "I had no time for those criticisms," she said. "They just didn't ring true to me at all, and I think honestly they came from that man who protested the film at Sundance. It actually got us so much great publicity, because it was such a shocking thing. But I think it led people to believe that it was a misogynistic film without having seen it."
"I felt that The Woman was a feminist movie at heart," McIntosh told SYFY FANGRRLS. "I think that it showed misogyny. That freaked out a lot of people, and so they felt that it was a misogynistic film. But if you look at that film compared to many commercial horror films that are torture porn … I think they are far more dangerous than The Woman is, as far as encouraging and normalizing that kind of behavior. The Woman showed it in its grotesqueness. That was the point of the film. And for me, I certainly got a lot out of that as an audience member. And I've spoken to a ton of women who've come up to me as fans of that film and said how powerful it was for them, how much it was cathartic for them about their own abuse."
McIntosh suspects the accusations of misogyny encouraged van den Houten to seek a female director for The Woman's sequel. "That was a really wise choice on his part," she said. "I think he recognized that if we came at it from a female perspective, it would be much harder to make those assumptions."
Set eight years after The Woman, Darlin' picks up with The Woman walking her titular ward back into civilization, leaving her at a hospital. Why she does so isn't immediately clear. Having spent much of her childhood in the woods, Darlin' (Lauryn Canny) is a snarling, biting feral child — which sparks the interest of a local bishop, who conscripts her to his all-girl boarding school. While Darlin' learns to speak, spell, and feel shame, The Woman finds new friends in a community of homeless women, living on the fringe of a cold-shouldered society. Though divided, the two are fated for a grisly reunion.
McIntosh admits she was nervous about taking the helm of The Woman's sequel, saying, "How could I possibly follow Lucky?" She decided she'd take van den Houten's offer if she could also write the script. "I wanted to make it personal so that I could invest fully in the time that it takes to make a film," she said. "I felt very inspired. I think with Ketchum's writing, it's so visceral, and so I'd had such a visceral experience of that character with The Woman and I really felt that I had her in my bones." As executive producers, van den Houten, McKee, and Ketchum granted McIntosh the creative freedom to take the story wherever she wanted, and she got to writing.
"I wanted to give The Woman her great kills," McIntosh said, "But I also didn't want to put her at the center, because I didn't want to direct myself throughout the whole movie. I thought that would do the film an injustice. Also, we've seen The Woman, we've been with The Woman. Bringing her into a city is a great idea, but she doesn't speak. How are we going to have a story with a woman who doesn't speak any other storyline than The Woman itself? So I picked Darlin' because she's such a charming character and she's so much at the heart of The Woman. And I thought she's been in the woods. If we do it in real time as a sequel, it's like, it's been about 10 years and what would Darlin' be like coming out of that?"
Darlin' is dedicated to Ketchum, who passed in early 2018, but not before he got to see the film go into production. With a smile, McIntosh recalled, "He actually got to visit us on set a month before he passed away, and he was grinning from ear to ear."
As to where The Woman's story might go next, McIntosh has a couple of thoughts. "There's a possibility of writing the novel. It's something I might do," she said. "I'm not sure." But she's not ready to give up on playing this feral female either.
"I love that character, The Woman," McIntosh said. "I'd love to play her again, but I think if we're going in the franchise, it should be somebody else directing the next one. And Lauryn Canny (who plays Darlin' in Darlin') was talking about getting new goals [and directing], and then, of course, she bashfully said, 'Oh no, no. I'm just spitting ideas.' But I think that would be amazing. She's such a talent. I'd certainly love to see her continue the story as Darlin' in sequels. It's ripe for a sequel."