Hellbender - New Release Review
Directed by: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Starring: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams
Written by: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Produced by: Toby Poser
Cinematography by: John Adams, Zelda Adams
Original Score by: John Adams
A young girl living in isolation and suffering from a rare illness begins to learn the dark secrets of her family's past and the ancient power in her bloodline.
The coming-of-age story has been at the cornerstone of many a cinematic marvel throughout the history of film. Add in some slowly crafted tension, creepy soundscapes, a bunch of psychedelic imagery and oh… hereditary witchcraft. Stir all those ingredients up in a big black cauldron and the finished product might look something like 'Hellbender'. This type of story isn’t exactly anything brand new in the horror realm. Films like 'Carrie', 'Ginger Snaps' and Julia Ducournau’s 'Raw' have all explored the female teenager “finding herself” through an arduous and usually transformative journey. 'Hellbender' does take some of its cues from those films but it delivers in very different ways.
From the minds of the Adams family (Father John, Mother Toby and daughters Zelda & Lulu) 'Hellbender' follows Izzy and her Mother, who reside in a large house on isolated private land in the mountains. Izzy has a rare immune disease that prevents her from coming in contact with other people and the two live off the land in relative peacefulness. That all changes, albeit at a snail’s pace, when Izzy eats a live worm while downing a tequila shot during a small gathering at a neighbour’s house. The ingestion of meat, or to put it bluntly, something that has life, sparks something inside Izzy that she has never felt before and almost instantaneously causes her to “change”. We’re not quite sure exactly how she is changed but it is very evident that this is not the same Izzy.
Up until this point we’ve had some foreshadowing from Mother (Toby Poser) about the potential illness that Izzy may be suffering from. The dirt road that leads to their private land is explicitly marked with warning signs and a heavy chain stops any traffic from entering. And Mother is dubiously silent when Izzy casually requests that she joins her on a trip into town. Even though their relationship is a wholesome one undoubtedly built on love and friendship there is clearly an underlying urge from Izzy to disobey her Mother’s orders to not wander too far from their home.
Mother’s authoritative role isn’t anywhere close to being as restrictive as Carrie White’s mother, however we see exactly what she is capable of when a lost stranger stops Izzy in the surrounding woods and asks for directions. Mother becomes instantly defensive and after finding out that the man (played by John Adams) has no family she turns him into ash. Izzy doesn’t witness the crime but the prior conversation elicits her adventurous side to find the neighbouring house where the stranger’s niece Amber (Lulu Adams) is staying. Her impulsive friendship with Amber leads to Izzy ingesting the worm which in turn leads to Izzy’s metaphysical transformation. The epiphany that Izzy experiences eventually leads to her discovering her family's secrets and an increasing appetite for power.
Zelda Adams is a revelation here. Her performance is subtle yet it commands you to look at her every single time she’s on screen. She rarely puts a foot out of place and is especially endearing when her character is in that state of curiosity. A place many teens find themselves just before adulthood. Not just simply seeking answers but also explanations. It’s one of the reasons 'Hellbender' is so captivating. Obviously her relationship with her real mother Toby Poser makes the on screen duo extra authentic and the many scenes that they share are a delight to watch. They even have their own rock band called, you’ve guessed it Hellbender (or H6llb6nd6r) and the musical inclusions are actually welcomed, if a little off putting to begin with.
It’s a tad ambiguous when it comes to explaining the mythology behind who or what being a Hellbender actually is. Are they witches? Well yes probably (but unlikely of the Salem kind) although it’s never clarified, however there is plenty of originality here too, certainly enough for us to question the magical powers that their bloodline possesses even after the credits roll. The vagueness of the family’s lore actually adds to the allure.
'Hellbender' is low budget filmmaking squeezing every ounce of creativity out of it’s creators, which often brings out the best results. The indoor scenes look substantially less cinematic than the outdoor scenes however the overall aesthetic of the film is grungy and gorgeous which is heightened further during the surreal, dream-like sequences. The special effects are pretty good too but the ones that you have to use your imagination with are the ones that land best. There’s blood and gore and thankfully the film doesn’t have to rely on jump scares to send a shiver down our spines. It’s not an especially scary piece of work however there are intensely atmospheric sequences that absolutely instil a sense of disquietude. There are notable visuals which are very reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s 'The Seventh Seal' and other scenes that harken back to 70s folk horror.
What makes 'Hellbender' even more of an impressive achievement is the fact that 99% of what you see and hear in the film was conceived and created by a core member of the Adams family. Father John edited the film, wrote the original score and constructed the sound design. Mother Toby produced the film and created all the costumes. Daughter Zelda worked as director of photography alongside John and all three wrote the screenplay and directed various scenes. Toby and Zelda also wrote and performed all their original songs for the band too. Amazing.
'Hellbender' is a trip, there’s no denying that. A slow burn that culminates in an impressive and very effective climax.
- Gavin Logan
'Hellbender' is available to stream exclusively on Shudder from February 24th