The coming of age tale as a horror movie has been done before. Whether it’s vampirism, or lycanthropy, or witchcraft, the story of a young person discovering something new inside themselves and figuring out both who they are and who they want to be is a well-worn trope.
Hellbender manages to put a unique spin on things, not only by reimagining witchcraft through a hard rock lens but by being a family affair, both on and off-screen.
And I mean that literally. On-screen, the story is one of family and about how far one would go to protect a loved one from the world or the world from that loved one. Off-screen, the Adams Family is made up of John Adams, his wife and creative partner Toby Poser, and their daughters Zelda and Lulu Adams. All of them appear in the film, and all of them except Lulu share the credit for writing and directing it.
The story follows Zelda Adams as the teenage Izzy, cloistered away from the world by her mother (Toby Poser) since her 6th birthday. She is curious, and there is clearly something nefarious going on around her, as evidenced by the ritual blood magic we see her mother performing from the early scenes in the film. Raised to believe she is sick and can’t be around people, Izzy is desperate for human interaction with anyone else. However, after a chance encounter with some other teenagers results in her eating a worm, something suddenly awakens inside her.
The rest of the film follows this awakening and how both Izzy and Mother deal with it. First, it needs to be said that the clear standout in the film is Zelda Adams as Izzy. She has an absolutely magnetic presence, and her journey of self-discovery has an animalistic feeling to it. Poser is similarly good as Mother, whose motivations are ambiguous for much of the film. We never truly know if she’s afraid for or afraid of her daughter, and that can be a difficult tightrope to walk, but Poser walks it gracefully.
The film isn’t without its issues, though. While the soundtrack is full of bangers performed by Izzy and Mother (they have a rock band, the makeup for which must have been a blast to design), the cinematography feels like a music video at some inappropriate times, which pushed me out of the narrative. One performance is also a little too capital-A acting for my taste, especially in scenes with other performers acting so naturally.
Still, these aren’t dealbreakers at all. Hellbender invents a whole new version of witchcraft (no, seriously) for its narrative and brings a unique perspective and vibe to the genre. There is a lot to love about it, and I am excited to see whatever the Adams family comes up with next, too.
Hellbender had its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival and will debut on Shudder in early 2022.
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