Coming-of-age stories with horror backdrops typically have the upper hand when it comes to bringing a unique vision due to the genre’s ability to tackle topics in ways that other films might not. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there are quite a number of titles that fall into this category and are ardently adored by a wide demographic: Ginger Snaps, It Follows, Raw, The Craft, and The Lost Boys, just to name a few. These tales often get their point across through a series of metaphors, some of which are a bit more obvious than others, and tackle the least appealing aspects of growing up with almost zero comfort for the audience, whereas another genre may provide humor or some form of catharsis to help alleviate any discomfort. 

Hellbender, a curious blend of teenage angst and folk horror, is no exception to any of this. The film centers around Izzy, a rather stolid teen who lives in isolation with her mother in the woods. Izzy is home-schooled and spends most of her time either hiking, swimming, or creating metal music with her mother for their two-member band called Hellbender. Although she enjoys these activities, Izzy becomes increasingly curious about the outside world after a hiker trespasses on their property and asks for her help. You see, Izzy is not allowed to leave the property because she is told that she is sick and must keep her distance from other people. However, after another encounter with a fellow teen sparks her desire for answers about her alleged sickness, Izzy begins to uncover her family’s dark past and their connection to witchcraft.

Interestingly, the film was co-directed and co-written by John Adams, his wife Toby Poser (who plays The Mother), and Zelda Adams (who plays Izzy). Together they have formed Adams Family Films, which may or may not be an intentional nod to the fictional Addams Family that most of us are familiar with. Upon learning of the family’s collaboration, I was nervous that it would result in a “too many chefs in the kitchen” scenario, with clashing ideas and messy execution. I was pleased to discover that this was far from the truth, and was thoroughly impressed at how concise and subdued the script was. The mother and daughter dynamic in the film is almost tangible, partly due to the real relationship between Toby and Zelda, no doubt, but also due to how eloquent the varying nuances are portrayed. All of this works to the film’s benefit due to the fact that it is an incredibly character-driven film.

The performances from both Toby and Zelda are wonderfully proficient, feeling relatively natural amid the supernatural aspects around them. I interpreted their relationship as a sort of reverse Carrie and Margaret White kinship, where although Izzy’s mother is intimidatingly authoritative and strict, often using clairvoyance to keep tabs on Izzy, she also does truly have her daughter’s best interests in mind and is seemingly a blast to hang out with. There’s a specific moment in the film where the two women share an unconventional bonding moment involving maggots which I found hilariously endearing, but I will refrain from spoiling it here. To top it off, exactly how many mothers out there actively play rock music with their daughters while donning full metal glam makeup during practice? Hopefully, more than one would expect, but either way, these moments between the leads were incredibly entertaining.

I’m not the most erudite when it comes to indie rock music, but the tunes produced by this wicked duo were appropriately snappy, making every rehearsal scene a welcome contribution to the story’s progression. I found myself, particularly enjoying the track “Armageddon”, which, quite fittingly, made me want to traverse a nearby forest while listening to it. At one point during the end of the second act, Izzy recites the lyrics to a new song that perfectly sums up where she and her mother currently stand after all has been revealed; this is another good example of how adept the Adams Family’s writing is, and it made me want to re-listen to the previous tracks to see if there was something lyrically that I missed!

While most of the film is focused on the evolving relationship between mother and daughter, there is still plenty of witchy imagery sprinkled throughout to appease fans of the genre. The visual effects range from impressive to moderate, but keeping in mind that this was a low-budget production, I’d say that they managed to pull off quite a lot! The final act was especially impressive, delivering grisly occurrences that only further cement that this is indeed a horror flick. The ending may feel a bit abrupt to some viewers but I felt that everything was perfectly wrapped up and enough implications can be made to deduce what will come next for both Izzy and her mother.

Clocking at only eighty-six minutes, Hellbender is a surprisingly pleasant reminder that skillful writing and unfeigned performances are more than enough to carry a film of this caliber. It paints a unique portrait of parental and adolescent progression with the forlorn atmosphere and woodsy environments of some of the most classic folk horror films around. It’s a slow burn that exudes a more visceral type of fear as opposed to utilizing the more conventionally accepted jump scare. Hellbender premiered at the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival on August 14, 2021, and is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.

Hellbender will be available to own DVD on September 5th, 2022 through Acorn Media International and includes the following special features: The Visual FX of Hellbender by Black Magic Tricks; Hellbender Music Videos; Bloopers, Zelda’s Alter Ego: Eville Adams; Behind-the-Scenes Footage; Travelling with Wonder Wheel.

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