Izzy is sheltered from the outside world, living isolated with her mother in the Catskill mountains. Izzy’s been told all her life that at a young age, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that warrants her from staying away from people. When a lost hiker stumbles upon Izzy, his friendliness and niceties inform her of his niece who lives nearby and is around the same age as Izzy. the lonely teen, who spends most of her time rocking out with her mother in a two-person band, curiously ventures away from the safety of her home and meets the niece, Amber, a freethinker and free-spirit very opposite in comparison to Izzy’s protected life. The interaction ignites a hidden family secret form within Izzy that ties her family lineage to witchcraft, revealing the true intentions of her mother’s overprotecting behavior and an unleashing growing pains of power coursing through Izzy’s thirst for independence.
No cackling. No broom. No familiar black cat. No pointy black hat. “Hellbender” isn’t your typical witch and witchcraft reel of dark magic spells. The family owned and operated, produced and crafted, feature film, released in 2021 and hailing straight from upper New York State’s Catskill mountains, is indie folk horror of coiled family complications in the coming-of-age aspect of a daughter finding herself outside the confines of mother’s safety net as well as the adverse effects on a child because helicopter parenting. “Hellbender” is a family affair as the writers and directors of the film are a nuclear family consisting of father – John Adams, mother – Toby Poser, and their daughter – Zelda Adams. The Adams family, as they like to punningly like to credit themselves, have collaborated, along with their oldest daughter, Lulu Adams, together since 2010 and released their first film, a drama feature from 2014 that was written and directed by John Adams and Toby Poser, known as “Rumblestrips” of essentially mother and daughters playing themselves going on one last RV trip before cannabis cultivating mom’s incarceration. Since then, the unstoppable family unit have been perfecting their craft on the indie circuit with short films, such as with the “Kid Kalifornia” shorts, and such as with their previous horror film, “The Deeper You Dig,” which became Zelda’s debut directorial. As their 6th feature film, “Hellbender” is clearly self-produced by the troupe, specifically Toby Poser who must control the family purse strings, and is a production of their own company, Wonder Wheel Productions.
Being right on the heels of watching “While We Sleep,” an Ukranian-U.S. demon-possession collaboration with an actual family playing a fictional one on screen, “Hellbender” doesn’t feel so terribly unique with its layered, dual roleplaying, but the performances in “Hellbender” are far superior with a richer, robust dynamic and better character progression that leads to terrifying results. Up in the principal forefront playing mother and daughter are mother and daughter, Toby Poser and Zelda Adams, who have made a sustainable and simple life for themselves on the mountainside. Passing time by forming their own lo-fi garage punk band (tracks recorded and used from their actual band of the same title but with 6s replacing the Es – H6LLB6ND6R), Mother and Izzy entirely live off the land, avoiding strangers, and substituting meat for twigs and berries. Poser and Adams deliver a real sense of kinship between a caring and shielding mother and a daughter naïve to the rest of the world in an allegorical sense of parents defending their children from the spoils of a loose culture. Inevitably, an outsider opens the door that now can never be closed and one of two of those outsiders is played by father John Adams as lost hiker. Subsequently, his presence spurs Izzy to another outsider which is played by Zelda’s sister Lulu Adams as the residential mountain neighbor and individualist Amber. Zelda admires Amber’s cavalier gamut that includes accepting Zelda into her friendship circle without condition. The feeling profoundly impacts and alters Zelda’s way of life, way of thinking, and grows the seedling of sorcery inside her. Watch Zelda flow through Izzy’s blossoming arc is subtle, ambiguous, and slightly volatile – a frightening combination to the best degree. “Hellbender” rounds out the cast with Rinzin Thonden, painter/model Khenzom Alling, Rob Figueroa, Shawn Wilson, Tess McKeegan, and adding one more Adams to the cast with John Adams Sr. in a cameo role.
It’s been established that “Hellbender” is classic without being conventional but does that necessarily make the film worth watching. The answer is resounding yes. “Hellbender” has a spartan wit of etching out enough character-driven resolve balanced with soft-pedaled special effects around the spellcasters’ craft that’s intertwined more with nature. Their special blood mixed with twigs, berries, or leaves are the special recipe for conjuring charms and incantations and while the mother’s intent is to keep on a low profile and away from people, the teen daughter who was held back from who she really is, held back from her own life even, has been rewired as the monster with a spasmodic surliness seen through her deceivingly wide smile and chipper attitude. The love and psychopathy are a symbolic combination of a stereotypical tumultuous mother and daughter relationship stemmed from being two peas in a pod. The darkness within them yearns to be free and much like a teenage girl eager to spread her wings, Izzy tastes the power of individuality on her lips and develops an incognito ruse in learning more about her powers, her family history, and all her mothers’ secrets to be what all parents fear – to be replaced by their children. “Hellbender” has an immense sense of seeing our own mortality right before our eyes with the very presence of our children and as the idiom goes that knowledge is power, Izzy plans to learn the whole ins and outs of her true self. “Hellbender” never lets up and never doubts the story with implementing a charade within a charade to keep audiences on their toes up to the fiery finale point of no return after opening Pandora’s box.
The Yellow Viel Films distributed “Hellbender” is a witches’ brew unlike anything ever concocted in the genre and the Shudder Original film has a new UK DVD release from Acorn Media International. The region 2, PAL encoded, DVD is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, has a runtime of 83 minutes, and has a certified 15 rating for very strong language, strong bloody images, violence and threat. Running at a higher level DVD9 bitrate of 8-9 Mbps, the image presentation is phenomenal for the format with no compression issues and the visual details are seamless. Catskill mountains invoke a tactile dampness throughout, and the foliage enlivens with a primary green with good contrasts against the darker brown and forestry emerald shades. The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound also has little to complain about with a maxed-out output of 192kbps that provides an unsullied soundtrack to H6LLB6ND6R’s discography. Dialogue renders perfectly as well. The only flaw is with the ambient overlays that distinctly felt exaggerated to a fault. Even when Izzy is walking through the forest, the Foley had an extra 200% crunch underneath her feet being one among the examples. Bons features included a visual FX breakdown by FX artist Trey Linsdsay that goes over layer-by-layer the visual heavy effect scenes to see how they were created, a handful of blooper scenes, behind-the-scenes footage of the Adams family shooting scenes and testing lynched dummies, H6LLB6ND6R band music videos, travelling with Wonder Wheel productions, and a short, very short, slice of film of Zelda Adam’s alter ego, Eville Adams in an odd artificial scope. Unflinching folkloric horror with a pinch of overparenting gone awry, “Hellbender” is hell-spawn defiant and a perfect, LoFi witch film that isn’t a witch film.