Hellbender Movie Review

Written by Stuart D. Monroe

Released by Shudder

hellbender poster large

Written and directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser
2021, 86 minutes, Not Rated
Released on February 24th, 2022

Zelda Adams as Izzy
Toby Poser as Mother
Lulu Adams as Amber
John Adams as Uncle
Rob Figueroa as Pool Owner

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So much of folk horror relies on isolation, rituals, superstition, and fear of the unknown, but it’s easy to forget about the familial aspect that serves as the glue holding those elements together. When a film is written and directed by a family operating as a single creative unit, you can be sure there will be a level of cohesion not often found in lower-budget indie productions. You can also be sure that family will be the front and center of the film; both the nature of the circle of life that is the parent and child relationship as well as the nature of bloodlines and family legacy.

Sixteen-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams; The Deeper You Dig) lives on the mountaintop with her mother, isolated from the rest of society due to an autoimmune disease that leaves her susceptible to nearly everything. At least, that is what she’s always been told by Mother (Toby Poser; Guiding Light). No longer a fragile child, Izzy yearns to see what’s out there in the world despite a basically wonderful relationship with her mother (they even formed their own alt-rock band called H6llb6nd6rs). After she’s approached in the woods by a lost hiker, she learns that his daughter, Amber (Lulu Adams; Halfway to Zen), lives on the next mountain over and could always use some more friends. Izzy can’t resist, and she’s soon partying with Amber and her friends at the unattended pool of a “citiot” (city idiot, I assume). When she ingests a live worm during a drinking game, however, a force in her is awakened, and it won’t go back to sleep. Once her mother accepts the fact that the genie is out of the bottle and Izzy can’t be treated like a child anymore, she embraces teaching her daughter all about her witch heritage. She soon discovers that Izzy is more than just a young adult; she may be far more powerful and capable than Mother could ever have imagined.

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Hellbender opens with a late 1800s witch hanging gone horribly wrong before jumping all the way into the present day (though clearly in the same area as the lynching). The cold open establishes a strong opening punch before settling into what is a dangerously drawn-out slow burn that feels far longer than the 86-minute run time. There’s plenty of believable and surprisingly nuanced family drama at play during this time, only giving glimpses of the power in this family through a series of trippy images seen through an arcane symbol.

The flavor of the symbol and the artifacts will call to mind the obvious Blair Witch comparisons, but that is a bit of a red herring. Hellbender feels more like a folk Carrie playing out in the dense New York wilderness – Izzy must be kept hidden from the world and kept clueless to the true nature of her power for the safety and well-being of the world around her. Mother is no Margaret White, however. She’s a lot like many other mothers out there – overprotective, clingy, and well-intentioned. The love is as genuine as the danger.

The aforementioned slow-burn pacing is punctuated by a handful of H6llb6nd6rs music videos used as montage backtracks. It’s a tried-and-true technique that feels a bit like padding here, but it does add an undeniable quality of unintended zaniness to otherwise somber proceedings. As the film wears on, that turns out to be a benefit as the tone becomes lighter and yet more mean-spirited as Izzy fully awakens and takes her place in the family.

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The visual effects are a pleasant surprise; I didn’t expect things like flight and spontaneous combustion to come off as anything other than hokey. The practical effects that become more prevalent as the film reaches its climax are handled extremely well, too. Hellbender isn’t a movie that’s heavy on gore or body count. Quite the opposite, in fact – much of the horror on display comes from the co-dependent psychology of the child-parent relationship and the manipulative nature of Mother’s teachings.

The concept of witches drawing power from the life in the creatures they eat that’s proportional to how big and scared the creature is a fertile one. Overall, the writing is what makes Hellbender stand out from the rest of the folk horror pack. As long as you accept the power of the witch as a believable story device, the rest of the pieces fall into place for a film that resonates with the true inevitability of being outgrown and outdone by your own children…even if that kid is a bloodthirsty and ambitious witch with burgeoning power.

Mother says it best as she lays at rest, nose to nose with Izzy: “I love you so much I could just eat you up. Break my heart, and I’ll devour you.”

Truer words were never spoken.

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Movie: 3.5 Star Rating Cover

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Stuart D. Monroe
Staff Reviewer
Stuart D. Monroe is a man of many faces – father, husband, movie reviewer, published author of short horror, unsuccessful screenwriter (for now), rabid Clemson Tiger, Southern gentleman, and one hell of a model American who goes by the handle "Big Daddy Stu" or "Sir". He's also highly disturbed and wears that fact like a badge of honor. He is a lover of all things horror with a particular taste for the fare of the Italians and the British. He sometimes gets aroused watching the hardcore stuff, but doesn't bother worrying about whether he was a serial killer in a past life as worrying is for the weak. He was raised in the video stores of the '80s and '90s. The movie theater is his cathedral. He worships H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. When he writes, he listens obsessively to either classical music or the works of Goblin to stimulate the neural pathways. His favorite movie is Dawn of the Dead. His favorite book is IT. His favorite TV show is LOST.
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