Created by the Adams family of filmmakers, Hellbender is a unique coming-of-age folk horror tale about identity, power and freedom. The story focuses on lonely teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) who lives an isolated existence alongside her mother (Toby Poser) but soon begins to uncover her family’s ties to an ancient power.
Opening on a scene that could be found in almost any witchy folk horror, Hellbender’s first scene is a witch being hanged for her crimes. But in this case, the hanging doesn’t stick and the witch clearly remains alive, even after also being shot. Before the viewer is able to discover what will actually kill this woman, the opening credits roll and we find ourselves transported to the present day. Here we’re introduced to Izzy, her mother and their band Hellbender.
The mother-daughter duo lives in almost complete isolation, with just the mother going to the nearest town every so often for necessities. Her mother claims that Izzy is isolated due to a sickness that will only get worse if she is around other people. This Rapunzel-esque premise leads to the brink of disaster when Izzy stumbles upon neighbouring teenager Amber (Lulu Adams) and her friends. During a party with these friends, Izzy drinks a shot of tequila with a worm in, unlocking a dark hunger within.
The mythology of Hellbender is steeped in witchcraft and the monstrous feminine, with generational magic existing through the matrilineal line, Izzy inherits power from her mother who inherited it from hers and so on. This mythological power draws the viewer further into the film with its twists and turns, and a book that continually whispers its secrets to Izzy.
This mythology, which was created by Poser herself, is unique to the story of Hellbender, as it is clearly inspired by tales of powerful women and the fear of these throughout history. The film’s take on the monstrous feminine has clearly been influenced by these characters, with the nature of the Hellbender’s powers being associated with animals, Lilith is traditionally associated with owls and other ‘night creatures’ while Eve causes humanity’s fall from grace due to the serpent and the apple.
The conflicted relationship between Izzy and her mother is something that mothers and daughters everywhere can probably relate to (minus the magic powers of course). Played by actual mother and daughter the relationship feels eerily real at times. With the tenderness of the mother’s protection alongside the shift in the relationship as the dynamic changes when Izzy discovers the truth, it’s reminiscent of a child growing up and preparing to leave home, while still needing their mother sometimes.
The film features the music of the Adams family’s band H6LLB6ND6R, the film’s characters also have a band of this name. The music continually adds to the creepy atmosphere at times, while also creating some of the film’s tenderest moments with Izzy and her mother holding band practice. Even when their relationship begins to disintegrate Izzy and her mother still discuss the band and their love for music.
The only real issue with the film is its bizarre passage of time. At times it seems like a lot of time has passed and it’ll turn out it’s only been a day within the film, while at other times it’ll feel like maybe a week has passed but the characters reveal it’s been months. This can be somewhat jarring at times and can take the viewer out of the film. Although arguably this adds to the atmosphere at times, with Izzy so isolated maybe this is how time would feel to her, with nothing to really mark the weeks and months and years.
The Adams family’s love for filmmaking, and film itself, is clear throughout Hellbender showing that independent film can be just as great, if not better, than big blockbuster hits.
Hellbender will be streaming exclusively on Shudder from March 24.
Director: Toby Poser, John Adams, Zelda Adams
Stars: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams
Runtime: 86 minutes