Dir. John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser (2021)
A teen girl who has been isolated from society discovers why her mother has kept her at home for all of these years.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
The Adams family makes some beautiful movies, and for any criticism that can be applied to their films, “bad-looking” is absolutely not one of them. They’re indie darlings of sorts due to their previous films, like The Deeper You Dig and The Hatred, and they bring a unique cinematography to their films that is often attempted by indie filmmakers, but rarely as successfully. The Adams’ brand of horror is dark, isolating, and emotional, and it’s not afraid to pull the heartrending punches that are oh-so-necessary to telling a good story. They also make a helluva film, and each movie in their filmography is a look at a family dynamic that is often taken for granted.
Hellbender forces us to ask ourselves the question, what if parents were not trying to protect their children from the world, but rather the world from their children? Mother, played by Toby Poser (who also was a director), does everything she can to isolate Izzy (Zelda Adams), her daughter in the film and in real-life as well. They live in the middle of a forest, subsisting on the most bizarre vegetarian diet you’ve ever seen, including pinecones and weird plants scavenged from the forest floor. When Izzy stumbles across Amber’s (Lulu Adams) poolside getaway, she begins to question her mother’s efforts to keep her away from society. What follows is a deep descent into the witchcraft that drives the family’s lineage and some truly brilliant sequences of special effects and gore.
For the love of God… what is it with these damned witches and their stick symbolism!
The film itself brings to mind other efforts such as Dogtooth, which I’ve reviewed recently, in that parents often go too far to isolate their children and remove them from the ills of the world. It’s dreamlike, bizarre, and beautifully haunting, and it contains the witchy feel that becomes totally appropriate once the ladies reveal their powers. These witches get their powers from eating living things, and the use the lifeforce from different prey to manifest their different powers. It’s a unique take on witchcraft and possibly cannibalism that draws from tribal lore and ancient magics, and the Adams family does a wonderful job of portraying all of those odd idiosyncrasies inherent in a magical culture.
Whatever critiques that one may have with the film (and we’ll get to what few I had shortly), the film features some absolutely outstanding acting by both Poser and Zelda Adams (and Lulu isn’t half bad either). Zelda deserves some an award for this film for her brilliant portrayal of a young woman coming into her own, and she pours every bit of her heart and soul (and teeth) into the role. Zelda is wonderful as the mother, doing her best to give her daughter the life that she did not have while knowing that it will ultimately be futile. When she is forced to share her secrets with Izzy, she does a magnificent job as the excited parent who truly relishes the things that she has been trying to hide for all of these years.
Someone needs a wet nap.
The other thing that struck me the most about this film is the soundtrack. Holy shit, I haven’t heard this good of a soundtrack in years. Feminist rock at its best, H6llb6nd6r provides all of the music (which makes sense because it’s comprised of members of the family.) The music is outstanding and does a wonderful job of carrying the moody visuals throughout the film. The lyrics are prophetic, and the songs within meander from the peaceful (and terrifying) scene-setters to the hard/punk rock songs that allows the audience to really feel the relationship between mother and daughter. I can’t even tell you how many songs were immediately added to my Spotify playlist.
The main issue with the film, however, has nothing to do with looks. The ending seems rather abrupt, though it has been foreshadowed throughout the film, and the story in and of itself does not do the best job of building as interesting of a movie as its setup could have been. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not a bad film, and it very much deserves the love that it has received. It is, ultimately, entertaining and wrought with emotion, the story of a mother’s love for her child despite knowing how things will turn out. It’s a coming-of-age film at its heart, but its not afraid to spill more than a drop of blood along the way. I did like The Deeper You Dig a little more than this one, but this one is almost definitely the better film.
Who this movie is for: Indie film lovers, Movie fans who like a lot of style in their productions, Meatatarians
Bottom line: Witchy and gorgeous as hell, Hellbender is absolutely worth a watch for anyone who doesn’t have extreme ADHD. It drags at times, but it is a slow burn film as the best witch films are wont to be. The Adams family are up-and-comers in the horror industry, and it’s easy to see why in Hellbender. Unique, creative, and with utterly breathtaking cinematography, it’s a film that should not be missed for those who like style mixed in with their horror.