A Closer Look at Darling: Polanski, Madness and Rape-Revenge Gone Awry

There’s plenty to be said about horror’s obsession with violated women succumbing to their trauma rather than overcoming it.
By  · Published on April 14th, 2016

Mickey Keating’s latest offering, Darling follows a lonely woman’s jarring descent into madness as she house-sits the oldest townhouse in New York City. The film, which premiered at last year’s Fantastic Fest, is now available on VOD, and it reunites a handful of actors from Keating’s 2015 film POD, including Larry Fessenden, Brian Morvant and Lauren Ashley Carter, who serves as both an executive producer and the eponymous Darling.

The film opens with Darling (Carter) receiving last minute instructions from the home’s owner, a wealthy older woman she calls Madame (Sean Young). After mentioning how glad she was to find Darling, Madame pauses: “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she hesitates, before letting the other shoe drop. It turns out the home’s last caretaker committed suicide by flinging herself off of the top floor balcony. Before Darling can digest this, or even get an explanation, Madame snaps a check at her and rushes out of the door. Our sense of dread and confusion only grows as Darling explores the foreboding house, full of stuffy sitting rooms, ticking clocks and a dizzying spiral of a dark wooden staircase, all set to a nearly atonal soundtrack. When Darling finds a mysterious locked door down a hidden corridor and is warned to stay away, there’s no more room for doubt: this won’t end well.

Keating masterfully ratchets up the tension in two ways. First, he offers quiet scenes of Darling that expose her aching loneliness. She wanders empty rooms while nursing a sliver of brandy, quietly pads down creaking hallways and lies in bed wide-awake, listening to the rain outside. But then, with growing frequency, we’re given jarring flashes of horror: Darling undressing for the shower, her stomach marred with unexplained, jagged scars; Darling silently screaming, her eyes wide with terror, or Darling fighting off an unknown attacker in bed. These images give a delicious jolt to the unassuming scenes, keeping the viewer unsettled and uneasy, even as the film lays its expository groundwork.

The comparison to Repulsion (1965) is a no-brainer. Darling, with her slick bob, kohl-rimmed eyes, and Peter Pan-collared dresses, is as much a Williamsburg hipster as she is one of Polanski’s doomed waifs, haunting the hardwood halls of a menacing apartment. The film is shot in monochrome, and while there are no grabbing hands emerging from the walls, Darling’s claustrophobic decay is certainly reminiscent of Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) unraveling.

Midway through the film it becomes clear that Darling’s breakdown stems from trauma following a sexual assault. We’re slowly given insight into this through Darling’s chance encounter with The Man (Brian Morvant), who stops her on the street while trying to return a dropped necklace. Darling reacts negatively to the kind gesture, retreating to an alleyway to fight a panic attack. Darling has just seen her attacker.

From here on out, Darling becomes obsessed with The Man. She not only follows him home, but she begins to skulk outside of his building, waiting for him to emerge. When he finally does, Darling follows him to a bar, where she proceeds to lure him back to the house. After offering him some brandy, she marches back from the kitchen, knife in hand, and stabs the unsuspecting man without blinking. During her murderous frenzy, Darling screams at him, “Do you remember me, Henry Sullivan?” The Man is unresponsive, but she continues to berate him, before breaking down and asking why he chose to hurt her. Later on, while cleaning up the mess, Darling flips open The Man’s wallet, revealing that he was not Henry Sullivan after all.

With this dark subplot, Darling, and Repulsion too for that matter, can be quantified as a non-traditional entry into the rape-revenge subgenre. In Repulsion, Carol murders her leery landlord, who sexually assaults her after breaking into her apartment to collect rent. In Darling, this connection is hazier as the film seems more like a rape-revenge plot gone wrong. But instead, Darling’s case of mistaken identity puts it on par with another rape-revenge movie, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981).

After being attacked twice in the same day, Thana, a mute garment worker, begins rampaging her way through New York City, indiscriminately killing any man who crosses her path. Some of the men Thana kills meet their fate after crudely objectifying or manipulating women, but others are seemingly innocent. But to Thana, these men were just as guilty as the others because they were impassive and allowed other men to hurt women. In the predatory world of Ms. 45’s New York City, no woman is safe, and no man is innocent.

This same formula can be applied to Darling. Although Darling is unable to find her actual attacker (much like Thana after her first assault), The Man’s willingness to go home with her, a complete stranger, solidified her belief that he was just as guilty and dangerous as her attacker. And so The Man serves as not only a surrogate but as a sacrifice to protect other women from the same fate. Darling had to kill, not to lose her sanity, but in fact to keep it. As she tells Madame, she couldn’t let him live with what he had done to her.

There’s plenty to be said about horror’s obsession with violated women succumbing to their trauma rather than overcoming it. In the film’s climax, as Darling mounts the ominous staircase, we know the ending that awaits her. For Darling, the real horror was always her memory, not anything looming behind locked doors in the house. Despite this, Darling does a fantastic job of building the sense of dread and apprehension, unnerving and scaring us silly, before we say goodbye to Darling and hello to the new girl, our next unsuspecting victim in the home’s deathly cycle.

Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.