Monday, February 21, 2022

Hellbender, on Shudder

This film is a lot like Terms of Endearment, The Joy Luck Club, and Mermaids, except the mother and daughter are witches. Technically, the mother uses the term “Hellbenders,” because it is heavier and more loaded with symbolic meaning, to better suit their dangerous powers. In any case, if you think witches, you get the general idea when the daughter, Izzy, learns their true nature in the Adams Filmmaking Family (mother Toby Poser, father John Adams, and daughter Zelda Adams)’s Hellbender, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

The mother has always homeschooled Izzy in their remote mountain cabin, claiming she has a rare autoimmune disease. She also carefully maintains a vegan diet that looks truly inedible (pinecones and whatnot). If anyone strays too close to their property, she makes them disappear, literally. However, when Izzy accidentally stumbles across some kids her age, their teen ways start triggering her powers.

It is impressive to see the Adamses release another ultra-DIY horror film, following the success of the super-cool
The Deeper You Dig. While Hellbender takes a deep dive into folk horror, it is not quite as exhilaratingly original as their debut. There are some very creepy sequences in Hellbender and they shrewdly embrace the nostalgia of their lo-fi old school effects, but the story feels much more familiar. Also, the mother-daughter performances as a hardcore rock duo somewhat break up the film’s flow—and let’s face it, free jazz would have been much scarier.

While John Adams and
Deeper co-star Shawn Wilson briefly turn up in small, but not insignificant roles, the focus falls squarely on Poser and Zelda Adams (logically portraying the mother and daughter), as well as her sister Zelda, playing Amber, a neighboring girl, who has the dubious luck of befriending Izzy. Poser is especially compelling as the earthy but conflicted mother (like an infernal hippy earth mother), but the Adams sisters are definitely credible as moody teens.

The sum of
Hellbender’s best, craziest parts is probably greater than its whole. It is a bit of a slow starter and the hardcore punk interludes are more slack than intense, but it still takes the audience on a frightening ride. There is an internal logic to what happens that is really quite unsettling, in the way genre viewers will appreciate. Recommended for fans of indie horror, Hellbender starts streaming Thursday (2/24) on Shudder (but first watch Deeper You Dig, which is also available on Shudder).