16th Aug2021

Fantasia 2021: ‘Hellbender’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams, Rinzin Thonden, Khenzom, Shawn Wilson, Judy Rosen, Rob Figueroa | Written and Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser

Teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives a lonely life with her mother (Toby Poser), their house isolated deep in the Catskill Mountains. That scenic seclusion is no accident. Her mother has gone through enormous efforts to keep Izzy largely away from people since she was five. For her own protection, and perhaps for that of others. They spend their days being each others’ best friends, teaching one another and making music in their two-piece rock band, H6llb6nd6r. As Izzy begins to grow more into herself, she starts venturing into town, spending time with other people, and a sharp thirst for deeper knowledge is stirred. Knowledge of self, and also of her family’s mysterious history… with witchcraft.

Despite it being their sixth film together, the Adams family (how apt given the genre films they make) exploded into the mainstream horror conscious with 2019’s The Deeper You Dig; a film that resonated with horror fans and found itself being picked up for release by Arrow Video. Which meant that their follow-up would not only be highly anticipated but probably put under more scrutiny than any of their previous films. So how does Hellbender hold up? Well its certainly no The Deeper You Dig. Yet Hellbender does share a very familiar theme with the Adams’ previous effort. It focuses on the family dynamic once again. However the film also forgoes a traditional plot for an esoteric, visually-driven story about the relationship between a mother and daughter – the kind of twisted, ultra-protective relationship that audiences saw in the likes of Brian De Palma’s Carrie... Only here it feels like not only is Izzy’s mother protecting her but seemingly protecting the outside world from Izzy too!

Hellbender opens with a grotesque scene that sees a woman hung in the woods by another group of women and their daughters, seeming for practicing witchcraft – setting the supernatural scene for the rest of the film. For this is a supernatural, folk horror-esque tale – only one that takes place in contemporary times, putting both protagonists at odds with the world we know. But that’s part of the point of this story. That “at odds” nature feels very reminiscent of Julia Ducournau’s 2016 horror Raw, with both films telling the story of societal outcasts facing the world and both featuring female protagonists whom, upon interacting with modern society become “corrupted” if you will; their inner dormant “monsters” unleashed.

Unfortunately for Hellbender that core theme is hidden under a plethora of visuals that detract from the plot – scenes such as Izzy and her mother playing rock music, wearing Kiss-like makeup, shot in music video style. And not just once, this happens multiple times. At a stretch this could be seen as a modern take on ritualistic chanting you would find in witchcraft etc. At worst these musical interludes are just padding to fill out a story that already feels insubstantial. So insubstantial that Hellbender descends into a series of hallucinatory visual set pieces between mother and daughter as one, Izzy, gains power in their relationship AND her own life as the other, Izzy’s mother, loses control.

It’s almost as if the entire film is actually a metaphor for the relationship between mothers and their daughters – the angst of letting go, no longer being the protector, the move into independence and the feeling that one is no longer needed…

**½  2.5/5

Hellbender screened as part of this years Fantasia Film Festival.

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