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“Hellbender” Is Excellent Microbudget Witchcraft (Review)

Image courtesy of AMC Networks/Shudder

Hellbender is the new film from budget horror auteurs John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams. The trio – a family – produces, writes, directs, lenses, edits, scores, and stars in low-fi horror productions filmed largely in the Catskills. Second daughter Lulu also joins here as an actor. These microbudget features showcase a remarkable amount of DIY creativity; they feel like something far larger scale than their budgets should allow.

Hellbender tells the story of a mother and daughter living in a rural home. They play metal together in Ziggy Stardust face paint and share a warm bond over vegan food. Because of some sort of health condition, the daughter, Izzy (Zelda Adams), is not allowed to leave the family’s property. “Beware of… Well, Just Beware” a sign on the property’s edge humorously explains. It is not long until, as one would expect, Izzy becomes curious about the outside world.

Image courtesy of AMC Networks/Shudder

A walk one day introduces a hiker (John Adams) who explains that he has a niece about the same age as Izzy who lives at a nearby property. Naturally, Izzy follows her curiosity to find the girl and the sort of companionship her mother cannot really offer. This friendship and contact with the outside world soon leads to Izzy learning the truth – that she is a hellbender: an ancient part witch, part demon creature who possesses great power extracted from the fear present in living things at the moment they die.

For me, this revelation is where the movie came alive. All of a sudden as the clouds of Izzy’s confinement are lifted, an energy takes over the film. As Mother (Toby Poser) begins to train Izzy in the ways of “hellbending” there’s an immense sense of discovery. Rather than play Izzy’s inevitable discovery as a point of tension between the characters, the filmmakers frame it as a moment of release and relief for the matriarch. She delights in sharing the secrets of her life with her daughter. They laugh together over the magical powers they can muster as Mother explains what animals taste best.

Image courtesy of AMC Networks/Shudder

There’s such a fascinating interplay of ideas on display here. It is – obviously – a coming of age and sexual awakening story. Beyond that, however, there are interesting notions of generational conflict simmering beneath the surface. It also feels like a rumination on loneliness and connection in a post-COVID world.

Frequently, the problem in these microbudget horror movies can come down to the quality of the actors. Hellbender is blessed with an entire cast of talented, effective performers. So much of the film succeeds because Zelda Adams is such an evocative, captivating performer. Often with little more than a glance or a shift in body language, she conveys significant emotional depth of a girl coming into her power, and of one taking control of her life.

While I get the sense that The Adams Family is happy making these wonderful sort of off the grid films, I cannot help but wonder what they might achieve with a larger budget…

Image courtesy of AMC Networks/Shudder

Hellbender is out on Shudder today.