EVIL Secluded is When EVIL is Most Dangerous. “Hellbender” reviewed! (Acorn International Media / DVD)

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.

Night Terrors Are Not EVIL Enough. “While We Sleep” reviewed! (VMI Releasing/ DVD)

“While We Sleep” available on DVD home video at Amazon.com!

Neurologist Nina Evanko is perplexed by the unusual CAT scans of 13-year-old Cora whose been suffering from sudden onset sleepwalking after her birthday party.  Believing the CAT scan is going through calibration issue with imaging process, Nina orders another set of scans, but when the scans produce the same result and a death of another patient right in front of Cora sends her home early before Nina’s arrival to study the results, Nina convinces Cora’s parents to an at-home sleep observation to root Cora’s sleepwalking cause.  What Nina finds is far more sinister than night terrors or any other kind of parasomnia as a demon has inhabited Cora’s body with nefarious intentions.  Cora’s only hope to save her soul is her bewildered parents, a rattled neurologist, and a rogue priest but a family secret may consume everything. 

If you’re still looking to support Ukraine during the now 6 plus months Russia invasion of their sovereign neighbor, why not support the Ukrainian-U.S. collaborative cinema?  Why not start more precisely with Andrzej Sekula’s 2021 child-possession thriller “While We Sleep” set in the Ukrainian capital and flagship city of Kiev.  Sekula, known more for his work with Quentin Tarantino as a cinematographer on “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” as well as “American Psycho” and “Hackers,” has quietly and seldomly helmed a handful of films over the two decades with “Cube 2:  Hyperspace” being one of them.  “While We Sleep” returns Sekula to the director’s chair for the first time since 2006 with a script by Rich Bonat and the film’s supporting costar Brian Gross, the first feature script penned by the “Jack Frost 2:  Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman” and remake of “2001 Maniacs” actor.  “While We Sleep” is coproduced by American Brian Gross and Kiev-Los Angeles based CinemAday productions, which include company bigwigs Rich Ronat, Yuriy Karnovsky, and Yuriy Prylypko. 

While much of the story begins with Cora and her parents (real life family of husband Brian Gross, wife Jacy King, and daughter Lyra Irene Gross) cursed by Cora’s acute and disconcerting sleepwalking disorder and moody behavior, the daily battle to understand their predicament is not left in the out of their league but most lovable hands of the parents as the film leads you to believe.  Roughly half hour into the film, the narrative switches from the convincing family perspective, despite building background on their low-band relationship troubles and move it nearly 100% to Nina’s problem-solving perspective with a hint of her own troubled past.  Kiev born and “Stranger” actress Darya Tregubova plays the neurologist too curious to shrug off the mysterious case of Cora’s abnormal scans.  Tregubova is fetching without saying but she doesn’t provide the necessary emotional weight of person who’s going through grief and loss issues from the past.  Tregubova also doesn’t convey the necessary weight toward her strong connection to Cora and Cora’s case with only a few expositional moments that hint at such.  These aspects leave Nina outside the bubble of plot events that make the character stick out as unnecessary even more with the character’s negligent professionalism surrounding the wellbeing of Cora and with the parent interactions.  Once the story butts in randomly the blacklisted priest, Father Andrey (Oliver Trevena, “The Reckoning”), with an intimate familiarity with the demon that possess Cora, we know that the story is lost as it tries to quickly and covertly wrap its grip around how to come to a head with this storyline.  You can’t have a possession film without a priest, right?  Father Andrey feels very much like a leftover thought, but Trevena tries his darnedest to sell a washed-up man of the cloth with desperation pouring from word out his mouth despite looking like an English hooligan in a pop collared leather jacket. 

“While We Sleep” has not-so-brittle bones of demonism and possession albeit lacking its own or established cultural mythos, yet there’s a disjointed nature about the story structure and plot points that just don’t make sense that crumble that coherency faster than Cora descending into the depths of demonic disorder. The opening scene is the most perplexing of all with an elaborate birthday cake that neither mom nor dad had made or bought for Cora’s 13th year. Without a care in the world, mom and dad don’t explore further who could have possibly made such a beautiful cake and little do they know, the cake, or rather the cake’s candles, are a conduit for demonic transmission into the soul. This part is never explained through the rest of the picture and, in fact, Gross or Bonat don’t touch back upon a possibility of explaining the odious presence. Much of everything is taken a face value, such as the fact Cora cuts her long hair to a pixie style without an eyelash being bat or in what’s more crtical to the plot is with Cora’s real and darkly unholy father backstory. Those facts are a shot to the brain and we’re still not understanding where Cora’s biological father fits into Cora’s space, into her mother’s space, or even into Father Andrey’s space, but you would think as important as this twist was suddenly deluged in a quick spit of point-blank honesty, the edges would be smoothed over and the picture would become clear as the holy water that was cross was spritzed with; yet, that the aggregation of aggravation of little-to-no details continues to carry out as if everything is perfectly peachy and comprehendible within the story context.

From the at-home release distributor that delivered John Travolta as “The Fanatic,” VMI Releasing, a subsidiary of VMI WorldWide, releases “While We Sleep” on DVD home video. The clear snapper cased DVD, a MPEG-2 formatted DVD5, is presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio with an average speed bitrate of 4-5 Mbps. You can see noticeable banding issues in the darker bedroom scenes sporadically throughout. Aside from that, the picture result is fair with more than enough detail for viewing. The English-Ukranian soundtrack is not listed on the back cover, but my SEIKI player reads two audio options: a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Digital dual channel 2.0. Discerning the difference between two is not worth the effort as there’s only subtleties in the output. The 5.1 surround sound has obvious better capacity for multi-channeling. Optional English subtitles are available but neither one of the audio tracks available nor the subtitles offer English captioning for the Ukranian dialogue and often times, there are back and forth exchanges that are intended to carry worth behind the exchange. The subtitles just state foreign language speaking which doesn’t help at all so there’s a bit of lost in translation in the dialogue unless you happen to speak or understand East Slavic languages. The 92-minute film comes unrated but doesn’t come with any bonus material as a feature only release. “While We Sleep” only nips at attempting to be a better than average “Exorcist” akin contemporary but remains on the haphazard course of shaky character building and bumpy, unpaved developments that make only for a rocky portrait of possession.

“While We Sleep” available on DVD home video at Amazon.com!