REVIEW: Hellbender [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 86 minutes
    Release Date: February 24th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Shudder
    Director(s): John Adams, Zelda Adams & Toby Poser
    Writer(s): John Adams, Zelda Adams & Toby Poser

I went hunting … for a laugh.

As an accused witch is lifted into the air by the rope in the hands of three women, we anticipate the worst. There’s no choice considering we already know what the latest DIY-horror from the Adams Family (John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughter Zelda Adams) is about. So, if hanging as a test for witchcraft means the victim remains alive, what comes next? Does she rise even higher before decimating those who dared to think they could destroy her? Does the fact that everyone watching being women mean they too are witches readying to finish the job? Even when it all eventually ends in a ball of flame and burning flesh, we’re still unsure of the consequences due to the punk rock segue ushering in the present.

Hellbender begins in the woods of an unknown past and continues there much, much later. Rather than a coven, we meet a duo with black eye paint thrashing drums and bass. Izzy (Zelda Adams) is having a blast—music her teen’s only outlet due to being housebound by a rare immunodeficiency disease. Mom (Poser) is enjoying herself just as much too, knowing that these sessions go a long way towards keeping her daughter engaged and happy despite the unfortunate circumstances. She must understand the day when curiosity finally pushes Izzy to rebel against this situation looms on the horizon, though. Even if these many years have lulled her into a false sense of security and control, the power coursing through their veins can only stay dormant so long.

One chance encounter will change everything because the fear inside Izzy’s mind can’t survive uncertainty. Enter a stranger (John Adams) lost on a hike. Desperate for directions, his bad luck places a woman who’s never gone past the tree line in his path. All he receives is a visit from her protector as Mom arrives out of nowhere to resecure their isolation by any means necessary. And that reaction is expected. That’s what mothers do. The issue, of course, is that her fear isn’t the same as Izzy’s upon return. The latter worries about growing ill from contamination. The former brushes it off as though the one thing this whole house-arrest was based on no longer poses a threat. How can Izzy not test the theory?

So, she travels a bit further, makes a friend (Lulu Adams‘ Amber), and dares to approach the edge of a psychological cliff before jumping off at the first sign of excitement outside her usual hermetically sealed prison of two. The leap provides Izzy her first taste of blood—life made still with the bite of her teeth. It’s like a drug has taken over her senses. A scream is unleashed along with a yearning for more. And without practice or restraint, “more” only exists in the form of fellow human beings. It all suddenly clicks into place. The solitude. The vegetarianism. The wholesome smiles. Mom has been hellbent (pun unintended) on keeping her daughter safe from the evils of their DNA. Well, the genie’s out of the bottle.

While I mostly liked this filmmaking family’s previous film The Deeper You Dig despite its budgetary shortcomings, Hellbender is a big step forward. The DIY production guarantees some moments still prove rough, but the main trio have crafted their script in a way that keeps the number to a minimum. Effective cinematography (John and Zelda) allows Trey Lindsay’s visual effects to augment rather than overshadow, the whole maintaining its character-driven construction rather than chase the potential of large-scale theatrics. It’s about a finger-snap turning a pitch-black room into a fiery den of destruction for the blink of an eye. It’s the trippy, nightmarish glimpses at memories and portentions building dread in lieu of cheap scares. This isn’t just about Izzy’s awakening. It’s also a reckoning for her mother.

This truth comes with good and bad. Yes, the decision to supply her a sheltered adolescence has amped up Izzy’s desire for carnage. It’s also delayed her education to a moment in time where Mom can enjoy the release hands-on lessons create considering she’s stifled those feelings within herself too. More than a mother/daughter dynamic, these two can evolve their de facto friendship in ways that let them, for all intents and purposes, hallucinate and wreak havoc—albeit in a controlled arena. It’s that last part that ultimately threatens to drive a wedge between them since Izzy hasn’t absorbed the pain and suffering her witchcraft can produce. That which drove her mother to forsake the life is invisible to her. She only sees its strength. She craves it.

So, while there’s always a humorous slant to the proceedings (kudos to Shawn Wilson‘s endearingly pure park ranger), that edge of danger is where it excels. How far will Izzy go to remind her mother of the details she’s been leaving out (a hidden book of captured thoughts reveals everything) and thus her place upon their domestic throne? Can Mom find the words to talk her down or has the mistake of letting Izzy discover this life on her own rendered de-escalation a fool’s errand? The suspense is constantly rising as the filmmakers expertly turn their budget to their advantage with a less-is-more method where it comes to violence that allows for some memorably grisly moments in the befores and afters. Never underestimate the ingenuity of supernatural storytelling.

[1] Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder
[2] Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder
[3] Toby Poser as Mother – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

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