Hellbender (or H6LLB6ND6R) uses DIY horror aesthetics to deliver a hallucinogenic and bloody entertaining mother/daughter story revolving around witchcraft.
The Adams family (no, not The Addams Family, but Toby, John, and Zelda Adams) are a filmmaking trio who made their name with The Deeper You Dig, which premiered back in 2019 at Fantasia Fest. What made them stand out and garner interest around horror fans worldwide is their stylistic DIY approach to horror, which is something you don’t see much today. They are involved in every single movie component: directing, editing, cinematography, acting, as well as sound design, costumes, and score. It’s fascinating to see something like this; it brings a massive smile to my face. In interviews, John has explained that each family member is in love with a different part of the process; Toby focuses on the writing, Zelda on the cinematography, and John on the sound and score. They have also had numerous family bands, with one of the reiterations named Kid California. Their recent one is called the post-punk H6LLB6ND6R, and since they loved the name so much, the Adams decided to build a film around their new band name.
Hellbender revolves around 16-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams), who lives an isolated and friendless life on a mountain top in an unspecified location. She lives with her protective mother (Toby Poser), whose name isn’t said in the movie. Her mother doesn’t let Izzy go to the city nor wander outside their property; the teen just spends her days reading, playing the drums, and going on hikes. All she dreams of is to go and play a live gig, but her mother thinks she’s too “sick” and mustn’t be around other people. However, things change when Izzy sneaks up to a nearby house, where she befriends the brash and brazen Amber (Lulu Adams), and a cruel drinking game dares her to eat a live worm, unleashing a new kind of hunger. Once ingested, Izzy is in a trance state until she delivers an intense screech out of nowhere. This is where the fun begins!
Many films centered around witchcraft (despite the fact that the word “witch” is never said) have a sensation of coldness or impending damnation in the atmosphere. Although Hellbender is set in some secluded forest grounds, the film doesn’t have that sensation from the beginning. Instead, it has a tone and look that’s more approachable, and the addition of having all events and circumstances happen in broad daylight (suggesting that nothing terrible will happen to these characters) helps misguide the viewer. As John Adams said at a Q&A at Fantasia Fest 2021: “We wanted to add joy and light, in order to up the stakes.” It’s a false sensation; the glossing colors and brightly lit scenarios won’t change the gray-colored mischievous vicissitude of the narrative. As the movie progresses, the trippier and darker it gets, both thematically and visually. Even their song lyrics change as they talk about Armageddon, tearing you into pieces, and whispers full of pain, causing a juxtaposition between the fate of these characters and the initially welcoming feeling.
Amidst all that, Hellbender is a coming-of-age story, which isn’t all that new and indulges in a couple of tropes here and there. Yet, what’s so interesting is the brutal and bloody play in maturity, legacy, and control (of yourself or another person). It’s done in two different manners, and they have their own visual styles. The first is how Izzy grows and matures on a personal level as she forges her path to self-discovery, what lies in-between her powers, and the desires she has been aching for. The second is through her mother’s perspective, who knows what will happen once she gets of age (her creation will replace her role as a mother). The film takes a similar approach to the cycle of a Goddess in pagan traditions seen in horror films like Season of the Witch, Viy, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Therefore, the Adams included several hallucinogenic blood rituals to manifest how their roles/lives are changing by the minute and the element of nature versus nurture.
The main reason why Hellbender works is its family ties. The performances are natural and grounded since the main cast is their own family of four (Zelda, Toby, Amber, and includes a cameo from John, who serves as an addition to the kill count). The mother-daughter relationship strives, even in the weirdest and freakiest of scenes. There are many scenes of them bonding through their discoveries of new power, but one in particular, where the two roll around in the snow hallucinating and throwing up some blood (it was pretty cool to look at), displays such hefty chemistry between the two. Some shortcomings with its DIY and micro-budget elements are evidently present, as some visual effects and make-up look a bit shoddy (and in addition, some segments drag a bit), but the film overcomes most of it.
Hellbender is smeared in lore, bloody when needed, has an earthy sensation (like in Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and A Field in England), and handles its coming-of-age themes with care. Doing such conveys that it can have a heart and be nasty (in various ways) in equal amounts. The follow-up for 2019’s The Deeper You Dig shows how talented this family is and how they are upping their game cinematically; it also makes us horror fans crave similar pictures like this. The Adams don’t need to shower the screen in gore to give shocks and increase the tension; all you need is talented people attached who are in love with the genre and have an exciting and original story to tell.
Hellbender premieres exclusively on Shudder on Thursday, February 24, 2022.
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