Novelist Jack Ketchum (Dallas Mayr) made his bones with a lean, mean book called The Off Season – which has never been filmed, though it shares a lot with a slew of pictures about degenerate cannibal clans that includes The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn franchises. Rather surprisingly, there now exists a trilogy of film spin-offs from The Off Season. Andrew van den Houton’s Offspring (2009), based on a sequel novel, introduced Pollyanna McIntosh as a member of a feral tribe who roam the North-Eastern woods eating tourists – and she was promoted to title character in Lucky McKee’s more unusual The Woman (2011), scripted by Ketchum and McKee (who also published a novel version). Now, McIntosh – whose ferocious presence was the strong suit of the earlier films, rather than the faintly rote misanthropy – is in charge with this direct sequel to The Woman, which she wrote, directed and appears in.
In a brief flashback, Lauren Ashley Carter reprises her role from The Woman – which ended with the Woman leading the daughters of a ghastly, civilised hypocrite out into the wilderness – and ties off a plot thread from the earlier movie, while setting up the basic situation of this one. The Woman more or less distanced itself from Offspring – and kudos to McIntosh for finding a Bible verse that includes the titles of both earlier films in the series – but this probably needs audiences to refresh memories of the story so far before plunging into a new-minted tale that plays subtle variations on the last go-round. After some years in the woods, the Woman returns to civilisation briefly to leave Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) at a hospital for reasons which take a while to become clear. In The Woman, the modern-day cavewoman happened to be captured by a petty domestic tyrant raising his suburban son to be another monster. Here, Darlin’ passes through the system – where a kindly gay nurse (Cooper Andrews) takes an interest, but isn’t given a chance to adopt her – and is taken up by a Bishop (Bryan Batt) who thinks that bringing a feral creature to God will get enough publicity to forestall the closure of a Catholic orphanage he’s been using for his own ends (some obvious, some subtle).
There’s a degree of mischief-making in the way the film picks at politicised-in-America scabs like clerical abuse, abortion, addiction, fundamentalism (‘now we’re going to teach evolution,’ says a nun in a classroom, ‘of EVIL’), homelessness, gay rights, suicide, the suppression of ‘secular music’, and the subjugation and marginalisation of women (not to mention cannibalism) – but, in the Ketchum style, the tone is gruesome melodrama, with McIntosh bringing a humanity that’s new to the franchise, especially in the sensitive treatment of the way Darlin’ interacts with the other girls at the orphanage, which may be corrupt from the top but isn’t a hotbed of bullying and cruelty. Nora-Jane Noone appears as a nun who at least tries to connect with the wild child – when the rest of the staff just need her to recite the catechism and take her first communion (screwing up the whole cannibalism-is-wrong message) in front of the press. Meanwhile, her adoptive mother stalks a homeless jungle with her Cousin Itt hairstyle and baleful stare – becoming almost a heroine among outcasts while still scary AF.
That one film can encompass delicate teen friendship and liver-eating splatter isn’t news, though this has a bold, risk-taking approach that makes it seem like a real development from the previous films in what now looks like a series. Like many actors-turned-director, McIntosh does especially good work making space for talented performers to show their range – Batt’s Bishop may be oily and loathesome, but he’s a more interesting sham-heroic villain than the sadist from The Woman, and Canny is extraordinary as the girl caught between brutal wilderness and barbed civilisation. Maddie Nichols, whose CV includes a bit in God’s Not Dead that resonates weirdly with this, is a strong presence as the orphanage bad girl (‘Billy you’re on a warning’) who befriends Darlin’ – it’s unusual that this is a horror movie which will obviously have a bloody freakout at the finish, but builds up suspense as we worry whether the innocent will be slaughtered along with the guilty and also have a sense of the consequences for the survivors of getting through the mini-apocalypse.