Coming-of-age themes and metaphors about puberty are all-too-common in horror, particularly because they’re so often obvious and literal. It’s a period of time in one’s life ripe for exploitation, but the films that revolve around it are either dry, written from perspectives far removed from the experience or sexist or racist (Teen Wolf‘s “You’re not a f*g are you?” comes to mind). Thank God for Hellbender, the new film from the Adams Family (Zelda, John and Toby Poser)- it remembers this period can also be insanely fun.
Izzy (Zelda) and her mother (Toby) are a goth rock duo who perform for no audience. This is because Izzy has been told she has an illness that makes her vulnerable to other people, so she’s never left home. In reality, she’s a descendant of a powerful, cannibalistic witch. Soon after she learns her nature, her mother grows concerned she’s embracing the darker side of it too much.
Rather than elicit eye-rolls with obvious, tired metaphors, Hellbender excels in it. The tropes of puberty-horror have rarely been more hard-hitting. Zelda and her family have created a narrative about the fear of the loss of attachment that’s painfully genuine without the supernatural elements – they only reinforce the horrific. It only intensifies as Izzy starts to learn more about who she could be, and animal skeletons start appearing everywhere.
For a film set in an isolated, home-schooled existence to whom very few would likely find familiar, it somehow nails the few times it delves into nostalgia; the quiet afternoons of wandering through forests and swimming in pools that didn’t belong to us. You can almost get lost in scenes such as those before remembering it’s a horror movie. More importantly, Zelda and Poser tap into that teenage rebellion with a frightening intensity.
Of course, none of this would work without grounded performances, and Zelda is really quite something; at once terrifying, unpredictable and sweetly innocent. It’s no surprise she had a hand in writing the material, and the maturity and self-assuredness of both the performance and the script are impressive. It also helps that it’s entirely a family affair, making every performance lived-in.
Hellbender is also an eerily timely film. The close-knit settings and the illness subplot aren’t tied to the pandemic at all, it’s just a happy coincidence that we’ve all felt pent up for the past year, and it’s something to which audiences will easily respond.
This is what good horror should do. More importantly, it never forgets to be fun. It’s the best coming-of-age horror film since Ginger Snaps.
Hellbender was screened as part of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. The festival runs virtually from Aug. 5 – 25, 2021.
Kenny Hedges is Carbon-based.