Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams & Toby Poser.
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams, Rob Figueroa, and Rinzin Thonden.
An isolated and lonely teenage girl discovers a family secret that challenges and changes everything she ever believed.
Shudder Original movie Hellbender opens with the credits informing you that this is an Adams Family Production; not the Addams family but the same Adams family that made indie slow-burner The Deeper You Dig a couple of years back, and much like that movie, Hellbender is clearly a labour of love, full of ideas but held back a bit by its low budget.
But don’t let that put you off as, unlike The Deeper You Dig, Hellbender isn’t a case of you can see what they’re going for but is a slog to sit through. Rather, you can see what they’re aiming for, a lot of the time they hit it and, more importantly, there is an energy bubbling away that keeps things moving along, packing a lot into its 80-minute running time.
Real-life mother and daughter Toby Poser and Zelda Adams play Mother (that’s how she’s credited) and her daughter Izzy. They live a quiet and peaceful existence in their isolated mountain house, with mother and daughter playing together in their own experimental rock band for fun – they have never performed in front of an audience – and Mother home educating Izzy as she has told her daughter she has a condition that prevents her mingling with other people. However, one day whilst walking in the woods Izzy meets and befriends Amber (Zelda’s sister Lulu Adams), a bubbly young woman who drinks beer and likes to party, and to Izzy’s surprise, nothing bad happens to her when they get close.
Naturally, Mother is none too pleased with all of this and, after Izzy consumes a worm during a drinking game and begins to behave very strangely, decides to tell her daughter the truth about her heritage and about the weird feelings and visions she has been having, namely that they come from a line of hellbenders, witch-like women who inherit certain qualities and powers from living souls that they consume. After that, things change forever as the once shy vegetarian Izzy embraces her new dark powers, which seem to be more powerful than her mother’s.
Tapping into folk and occult horror, Hellbender is as ambitious as The Deeper You Dig but the Adams’ have streamlined their storytelling technique, still taking their time to set up the direction the story is going in but instead of long gaps where not a lot happens they have focused the sense of dread, dropping in little plot details to keep you hooked and delivering performances that lift the material from an intriguing story on the page to something more ethereal and exciting on the screen, which pays off even more when they pull the rug out from under you.
As well as standout performances from Toby Poser and Zelda Adams – who seems to be able to sell teenage angst with just the raising of an eyebrow or the slight curl of her lip – the movie is peppered with some stunning hallucinatory visuals, adding a Ken Russell-esque flavour which isn’t seen enough in modern horror movies, especially those on a miniscule budget such as this. Yes, they could be accused of filling in the running time a little, but those bursts of surreal psychedelia flesh out the sense of creeping dread that permeates virtually every scene, creating something that may cause you to jump with their sudden appearance but will also linger with you once they have vanished from the screen.
The only real shortcoming with Hellbender is with the budgetary limitations as there is scope here to do something bigger and more elaborate, but Hellbender is also a movie with a folk horror heart, not needing shine and polish for its scares and instead drawing its inspiration from the dirt and the grit, down where the evil things dwell. However, it is a rich source and perhaps the Adams Family will revisit it, if only to dig a little deeper to see what they can unearth.
Until that happens, Hellbender is certainly a big step forward for their brand and worth spending some time with, as repeat viewings prove to be just as rewarding.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★