A confident coming of age horror that focuses more on the ever-changing dynamic between parent and child. The Adams family has made a very surprisingly effective film in Hellbender. One that does so much right and very little wrong – a fantastically refreshing film.
Teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives a lonely life with her mother (Toby Poser), their house isolated deep in the Catskill Mountains. That scenic seclusion is no accident. Her mother has gone through enormous efforts to keep Izzy largely away from people since she was five. For her protection, and perhaps for that of others. They spend their days being each other’s best friends, teaching one another and making music in their two-piece rock band, H6LLB6ND6R. As Izzy begins to grow more into herself, she starts venturing into town, spending time with other people, and a sharp thirst for deeper knowledge is stirred. Knowledge of self, and also of her family’s mysterious history… with witchcraft.
Hellbender ticks all the wonderful genre boxes in this supernatural coming of age folk horror. A tale of isolation and prophecy, the key to the success of the film is the dynamic between Adams and Poser. As we see Izzy evolve into a more confident and powerful being, we see the power and authority that Mother once had slowly fall into the shadows as fear takes over. Be it from losing the daughter she has spent years protecting or from not knowing what her own flesh and blood will do to her.
The horror aspects are filled throughout with some rather gory moments in the final act. The tension in that opening half is built up so well, the mystery of what Mother is holding back from her daughter or how much Izzy knows of the goings on in her own home reel you slowly in. It helps that the filmmakers have us suspect Mother from the first moment we meet her due to her activities and demeanour. This leaves us to worry and feel more for Izzy, who seemingly just wants to have a normal teenage life. However, any genre fan knows that there is always a reason to a parent keeping their child as secluded as Izzy is, and it isn’t usually a positive one for those outside of that circle. As we proceed on, Hellbender begins to take a darker and more sinister tone thanks to each encounter Izzy has with others after meeting with Amber and her friends. Each interaction has you guessing as to what exactly she will do as she begins to lose herself in the aura of her supposed destiny.
Yet, a freshness is present here in what is a fairly standard story thanks to the natural real life mother daughter dynamic and how intimate the entire film is. Other than the odd scene aware from the house or nearby wooden area, this is a chamber piece with very few characters. Hellbender is almost effortless as it eases us into this little story and it resolutely makes sure not to let us go until the credits roll. This is a quiet film that takes its time and joyously inserts scenes of Mother and Izzy performing as their band, painted in makeup only for themselves.
For as great as the horror aspects of Hellbender is though, it is very much a nature vs nurture story. As said earlier, the dynamic between the two women is key. But their story is also one that, other than the witchy inclusions, is all too familiar to parents. The child’s curiosity will always be shrouded by the concerns of the parent, no matter the age. Yet, as the children get older, they break away those reigns and be independent, unaware that their parent has gone through this themselves and know what they are feeling. They feel as though their parent would not understand and we see that here with Izzy, she wonders why her mother has hidden what she has and also never taken advantage of it. Mother knows that to do so, so young would only bring pain on others and has thus tried to reel it in to limited success.
Zelda Adams is excellent here, and a potential star in the making. Telling a lot of Izzy’s story through her eyes, we feel what she is feeling long before any actions take place. It is a great performance full of frustration, hope and a touch of betrayal. Toby Poser has the difficult task of centring the film. Although she is of the supernatural kind, she is also a mother who wants to protect her child and feels that by spoonfeeding Izzy the information, she may quell her daughter’s urges.
With a purposely slow-burn pace, there will be audiences who will be frustrated by Hellbender, but this is a film that needs to be savoured at its pace as the nuance in the performances and story is what works best. Like all good horrors, the build takes hold of the film, and by the punchy final act, the film will have earned your patience.
Hellbender is a film that very much keeps its personnel close-knit to tremendous success. Not only are the family who run Wonder Wheel Productions covering almost every position in the crew, but they are also in front of the camera. John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser work very well as a team due to their multitalented. Young Zelda not only takes on some directorial duties but also cinematography and writing. Toby Poser is a director, writer and costume designer. John Adams, who also plays the uncle to Amber (Lulu Adams), is also a composer, editor and more. This is one impressive family film and shows that the sky is the limit for this team.
It would be easy to go on about the team itself, but that would only be a disservice to the actual film itself, and it does need to be said that this is a very natural film. It is a testament to the story that the team has created and the acting on offer. When we believe these characters, we understand Izzy’s frustrations at being trapped on the land away from people. We also see her mother’s pain in keeping up the reason for Izzy’s entrapment. She knows what could come.
With such strong performances and comfortableness, the story leaves you with a film that works on almost all of its levels. Unfortunately, the budget flaws eeking onto the screen when we move away from the practical and digital sequences. Still, that is a budget issue more than anything else, and it never detracts us from the power struggle between the mother and daughter.
For those wondering when they will be able to see Hellbender, from what was learned during the festival thus far, Shudder was mighty sharp in picking up this film and for very good reason, as this is a fantastic discovery of a movie.
For more of our coverage of Fantasia Fest 2021, have a gander below! We will update each day!
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
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