After breaking through with their sixth film, 2019’s The Deeper You Dig, John Adams and Toby Poser are back with Hellbender. And this time they’ve added their daughter Zelda Adams to the writing and directing team. Can they recapture that film’s success, or was it a flash in the pan?
Hellbender opens with the hanging, actually more like the lynching, of a suspected witch. This goes from horrifying to unintentionally hysterical when, in an overload of CGI blood spray and fire effects, the witch takes off like the Human Torch from The Fantastic Four. This immediately gives way to Izzy (Zelda Adams, The Ascent, The Hatred) and her mother (Toby Poser, The Guiding Light, The Lucky Ones) playing in their band H6llb6nd6r. Their look and sound are on a level with the prologue’s CGI. Afterwards, mom says she’s going into town, does Izzy want anything? She’s not amused when she asks if she can go with her.
Izzy has been raised here in the middle of nowhere apparently with no contact with anyone but her mother since she was five. According to her mother, it’s because she has a rare illness and can never ever be around other people again. But she’s getting to the age where wandering through the woods, swimming in the creek and being in a band with mommy isn’t enough. She wants to go into town, meet people, have friends. To have a life and not be a hermit.
After way, too much time watching Izzy wander around and mommy eat strange berries, hallucinate and/or cast spells. Something happens, a lost hiker (John Adams) stumbles across Izzy in the woods. So mommy uses her magic to kill him slowly and painfully. Then we go back to wandering around in the woods. If you’re getting the idea that Hellbender is hellishly slow then you’re right. It feels like hours before Izzy meets Amber (Lulu Adams) and something resembling a plot begins to take shape as Amber exposes her to the real world and other people with unsurprisingly bad results. But it’ll be a while before we get to those, there’s more wandering around in the woods to do first.
Hellbender is a folk horror coming of age story. Sort of a reverse version of Carrie, where the mother is trying to protect Izzy, and the world, from her powers. But it’s paced so badly and padded out with a pair of music videos for H6llB6nd6r and several seventies-style trippy sequences. There’s so much padding that it becomes a chore to sit through. It doesn’t help that the only kind of creepy vibe the Hellbender ever gives off is early in the film. And it’s the entirely wrong kind of creepy. The whole idea of keeping Izzy isolated and forbidding her any contact with anyone else feels more like the acts of an abusive parent or kidnapper/human trafficker than a loving mother. The fact that her mother kills an innocent man over it just enhances that feeling.
To be fair there is some fairly well-done gore late in the film. And, if I hadn’t been bored well past the point of not caring the ending probably would have carried a punch. Unfortunately, the Adams Family made Hellbender’s burn too slow and got so carried away with the stylish visuals and musical interludes that I had checked out long before that point.
Based on The Deeper You Dig, Hellbender was one of my most anticipated watches from this year’s edition of Fantasia. It turned out to be my biggest disappointment so far. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The filmmakers couldn’t be bothered giving Hellbender a poster, trailer or more than one publicity shot. If they don’t believe their film is worth that much effort, why should I have believed it was worth my time?
Update 14/01/2022 Shudder has released a trailer, poster and more pictures.
Hellbender will be making its world premiere at Fantasia. You can check the film’s page on the festival’s website for ticket information. Shudder has already picked it up and will add it to its streaming service in early 2022. Which is a bigger surprise than anything in the film itself.