Hellbender is arguably the most anticipated movie playing Fantasia 2021, picked up by Shudder even before it premiered, and for good reason as it turns out. We’ve been so preconditioned not to get sucked into the hype that, frequently, horror fans feel let down after finally experiencing the film everybody is raving about – consider the insane backlash to The Witch, which was wrongfully decried as not a real horror film (whatever that means). Suffice to say, pre-release hype often damages a movie’s reputation in the long run but, in the case of Hellbender, it would be difficult to imagine the flick not connecting with audiences anyway, chiefly because of its sheer audacity and uniqueness.
Hellbender opens with a thrilling, old-timey throwback, beautifully photographed in expansive long shots, which finds a woman being hung after eating…something, or someone, only for her captors to realize hanging won’t be sufficient. Nor will shooting her, in fact. Only a full-on immolation will rid the world of this wicked creature, as it turns out. As a group of hooded figures watch silently, gathered among the tall trees, it’s clear this film is something special, something strange. However, Hellbender then abruptly switches focus to the present day, or something like it, as a mother-daughter band works out some angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion in their isolated mountain home.
Real-life mother and daughter Toby Poser and Zelda Adams play Mother and Izzy respectively. Carving out a relatively content existence untouched by outside interference, they jam out, feed off the land, and get what they need during Mother’s semi-regular trips into town. It’s clear something weird is going on, but exactly what is gradually revealed through Izzy’s interactions with other kids her age (one of whom is played by her sister, Lulu Adams). There are suggestions of Munchausen’s by proxy but, as the opening prologue hints, there are also otherworldly elements at play here. A history of witchcraft, which bleeds deep into their family history, reveals powers Izzy could never have contemplated before, leading to a coming-of-age story unlike any other.
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There are echoes of Julia Ducournau’s celebrated Raw in Hellbender, but this is a more ethereal and cerebral, rather than visceral, experience overall. Director John Adams, father of Zelda and husband to Poser, who also co-wrote the script and plays in a band with those two outside the movie (phew!) handled the cinematography alongside his demonstrably multi-talented daughter. The landscape is gorgeously photographed, the deep greens in particular really popping out, and looks almost otherworldly at times. When Mother and Izzy take turns puking blood onto each other in the snow, it’s just as gorgeous as watching the younger woman bathe in a scenic stream. Likewise, a final act sequence is shot using just a single light and is all the more impactful as a result.
The VFX are a bit dodgy at times, but a recurring image of a key through a hand is memorable, while a horrifyingly mesmerizing dinner sequence is quite literally stomach churning, bested only by a subsequent journey through a meat tunnel. The occult notes are keenly observed, suggesting the Adams family (as the filmmaking trio is collectively known) has at the very least a passing interest in the dark side. At its core, though, Hellbender is a rumination on parenthood and the larger fears parents pass on to their children. There’s a tentative power balance at play between Mother and Izzy, one which could be disrupted at any moment, but it’s so delicate because they only have each other and are incredibly alike – the two women even wear the same color palette, to solidify the depth of their connection.
There are notes of bone-dry humor scattered throughout the film, including a sign on the border of the family’s land that reads “beware of…well, just beware” while an incident with a chattering stranger (played by John Adams, natch) is played for laughs before turning dark as Mother displays the true strength of her powers. Hellbender isn’t solemn or self-important but considering how many hats each member of the family wears, it was clearly a meaningful and emotionally charged experience for everybody involved. That feeling is carried throughout the film’s less grounded moments; even when it doesn’t quite connect, by sheer force of will it manages to leave an indelible impression regardless.
The rocking, all-female soundtrack – including the central band’s catchy output – solidifies Hellbender as an essentially female story and the two lead performances from the Adams women are note-perfect. Poser is warm and loving yet strangely distant as Mother tries her best to do the right thing by her daughter while, as Izzy, Zelda Adams is winningly wide-eyed and curious but increasingly difficult to read, so it’s never quite clear where her loyalties lie. This is a family affair through and through but, to the film’s great credit, Hellbender also has a universal message about identity and trusting your natural instincts. It’s folk horror, a coming-of-age story, and an occult thriller all rolled into one and it’s very unlikely you’ll see anything else quite like it this year.
WICKED RATING: 8/10