[Fantastic Fest Review] 'Hellbender' is Arthouse Horror that Bends Witchcraft Into a Coming of Age Story
“Magic comes from the fear…”
…Witchcraft has had quite the comeback in horror over the last few years ever since The Witch screeched into theaters, and a family of filmmakers are the latest to open the spell book on the genre with writer/directors John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser’s Hellbender, which just premiered at Fantastic Fest.
Hellbender follows a mother (Toby Poser) and her daughter, Izzy (Zelda Adams), living in isolation in the mountains. Izzy isn’t allowed to be around people because of some mysterious disease, and so when she sneaks off and meets neighbor Amber (Lulu Adams), she’s thrilled to have made a new friend. But in making that friend, Izzy discovers a terrifying part of herself that she may not be able to control.
A do it yourself horror film from the team behind The Deeper You Dig, Hellbender is yet another project in which the Adams/Poser family approaches the spiritual side of horror from every area behind and in front of the camera. From the music to the cinematography, editing, costume design, sound, you name it, they do it all, and that shows throughout in the best and worst ways.
On a technical side, Hellbender is far from perfect. The editing is a bit clunky. The sound mixing is unbalanced. Most of the digital effects are questionable. And the acting ranges from good to awkward. But if you can look past all of that, and you should, Hellbender is a unique take on modern witchcraft that casts a captivating spell on the viewer right from the very first image.
Opening sometime in the past, Hellbender tosses us into the witch’s pot as we watch a bloodied woman hung by a bunch of religious do-gooders. Hangings are a pretty common theme in stories revolving around witches, but not like this. This film contains the most disturbing hanging since Sinister, all because the filmmakers dare not cut away. We’re forced to watch as this woman gags, kicks and struggles to live, even as the villagers take to other methods of “justice” to end her horrid noises. The moment is a precursor for the unblinking savagery that lies ahead.
We then meet Izzy and her mom, in the middle of jamming to the tune of John Adams’ kickass score and decked out in punk costumes/makeup. This family no doubt digs the likes of Slayer, and the two use playing music as something fun to do together while they pass the years alone. The name of their band? You guessed it. Hellbender. Dope of a name as it is, this is where you can start to sense a bit of self-indulgent tendencies in Hellbender. I respect the, er, hell, out of a family going off and making such interesting movies as this on their own, but these music-video style moments come off as excessive and showy, no matter how cool the music is (it’s awesome).
See, Hellbender is high art supernatural horror, so you have to expect it to be a little obsessed with itself. But it isn’t that difficult to understand why, because despite any flaws, the concept which the filmmakers have crafted is fresh and enticing, and together, they have a gifted eye for how to present it.
Hellbender is a top to bottom gorgeous film. Earthy colors abound, so much so you can practically smell the mildew in the forest air. No wonder, as Hellbender takes an ultra-naturalistic approach to witchcraft. Izzy and her mother are what I would call master level vegans, eating only food that looks like it went directly from the ground to the plate. And mom? Well, she likes to eat berries and drool them into her palms to rub on sticks and other odd rituals. It’s a goopy, gross visual that looks a lot like mom is drooling blood, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of witchy strangeness.
These witches are more connected to the earth than most you’ll see in the genre. There’s a heavy theme of nature and power through life—in this case, eating living things—which leads to plenty of queasy, gag-inducing moments that had me rethink any interest in practicing witchcraft. You can’t get me to drink the worm in a tequila bottle, so no way would I eat a live one, all the power in the world be damned! You might think all of that sounds pretty horrendous, and it is, but for a large portion of Hellbender, there’s a magical wonder to it all that is hypnotic. Being real life family, there’s an endearing quality to Zelda Adams and Toby Poser’s chemistry. All of the best moments come from watching these two together. You laugh with them. You cry with them. And you dread the inevitability of their relationship.
The horror in Hellbender comes from the fact that it blends a coming of age story with witchcraft, and as we all know, growing up in any capacity is a violent, confusing time. Throw in the supernatural, and you’re headed for a world of pain. Hellbender has similarities to Carrie, another coming of age tale, in the sense that while there is a great love between mother and daughter, there is a brewing conflict bubbling up like the potion in a witch’s pot, with Izzy wanting more control over her life while mom wants to keep her sheltered. Frequent, horrific nightmares that begin to blend into reality portray mom’s uncertainty over Izzy’s power. Izzy is no shy, tepid soul like Carrie though. Zelda Adams consistently steals the scene in Hellbender with a performance that is confident, sweet, and downright disturbing.
And people ask me why I don’t want kids.
Hellbender hits some unforgettably frightening heights, but it’s a film that requires patience to get there. This is ultimately a dangerous journey through self-discovery that tests the limits of a mother and daughter’s relationship through something as simple and terrifying as growing up. The filmmakers engage more through feeling than a riveting script, so while some might get tired of the film’s meandering pacing—despite a runtime just over eighty minutes—others will find themselves lost in the macabre beauty of the moment, of which there are several.
If witchy punk rock arthouse horror is your jam, then Hellbender may just rock your world. Another strange, captivating work from the Adams/Poser team that remains an inspiring group of filmmakers putting out intriguing material and having a blast while doing it.
By Matt Konopka