Hellbender (FANTASTIC) Casts Dread-Inducing Family Centered Horror
First Non-Festival Release: TBD
Director: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Writer: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Runtime: 86 Minutes
Starring: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Fantastic Film Festival 2021.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives with her mother (Toby Poser) on a mountain in the middle of the woods. All Izzy wants to do is meet other kids her age and get some distance between her and her mother. Her mother is fearful that Izzy’s contact with others may harm her and that it is dangerous. Eventually, Izzy learns the truth as to why she cannot interact with other people and begins experimenting with her newfound knowledge and understanding of the world with deadly consequences.
Inventive and clever, Hellbender makes magic by pulling off all the right tricks to make its audience cringe and quiver.
What makes this film so unique is the mythology behind its central protagonists, the Hellbenders. The half demon, half witch, half apex predator thing is so creative and interesting. It makes the film stand out from similar films despite having some of the same content. Touching on the cyclical nature of family, the complicated mother-daughter relationships, and the nature of power, Hellbender goes for broke in all aspects of its story.
A small cast of characters is brought to life by strong performances from its actors. Zelda Adams does a great job at portraying Izzy and her transformation from shy and awkward to power hungry and a force to be feared. Toby Poser’s role as Mother, although standard, shows plenty of vulnerability in being both mother and friend to her daughter. It’s their relationship that is integral to the success of the film. Without their pitch perfect chemistry, the themes and beats of the film would not land half as hard. Lulu Adams’s work as Amber adds some much-needed punches of comedy into the film with her deadpan delivery and bursts of energy, which helps lighten the feel of the otherwise moody and intimate aspects of the film.
Little moments here and there really make the film work. The film really goes for it with its incredibly claustrophobic and inspired finale. It deviates wholly from the aesthetics of the rest of the film and pays off in dividends. Izzy’s transformation is earned and feels very much like a typical teenage coming-of-age film, if the desired ending was embracing one’s power to cause suffering, of course. So many cool symbols and set pieces populate the film that make the home and forest feel truly lived in. From the set design of the house to the limited interactions with other townsfolk, Hellbender feels intimate and claustrophobic despite its massive environment. The repetition of drone shots to signal the initiation of certain spells by casting floating objects in the sky is such a wonderful example of these methods.
It’s clear that a lot of care went into making this film. If directing, writing, editing, producing, and acting isn’t enough, the soundtrack is produced entirely from original recordings of the filmmaker’s band, HellBender, and guitar/bass sounds that John made. There’s a dynamic quality to the lyrics and music that help paint a better story of the mother and daughter as they go about their seasons of life. This works splendidly with the recurring motif of “winter eats fall, fall eats summer…” so on and so forth. The effects are mostly hits with a few moments that can take a viewer out of the moment, which is excellent for a film of this scale. This family production offers a nice helping of dark and brooding horror with enough touches of levity to lighten it with personality and fervor.
Hellbender is a wonderfully dark indie horror that gets under the skin and unsettles before dragging you down into the depths of its pulse-pounding finale. There’s something special about the filmmaking process when it’s done almost entirely by the family crew. Solid performances, great soundtrack, and an expansive mythology make Hellbender a film to look out for come 2022 when it is released. It’s rewarding to see the growth in filmmakers, and I look forward to seeing what they do in their next project. Be warned though, this is no walk in the woods. You’ll find yourself falling prey to their magic soon enough.
Overall Score? 7/10