Directed by: John Adams and Zelda Adams and Toby Poser
Premise: A teenager (Zelda Adams) living in isolation with her mother discovers their family connection to witchcraft. As the teen explores her magical powers, she becomes increasingly independent.
What Works: Hellbender is a folk horror movie, meaning that it uses elements of folklore and in this case witchcraft. The folk horror genre is generally about mysteries that the modern world has forgotten and Hellbender is rooted in literary and cinematic traditions that produced The Devil and Tom Walker and The Witch. This movie is an interesting cross of historical and contemporary takes on witchcraft. The witches of traditional American folklore were villainous but in recent times the witch has been reimagined as a feminist symbol. Hellbender weaves those ideas together in a story of a mother and daughter. Most of Hellbender plays out between Izzy and her mother, played by Zelda Adams and Toby Poser. The two of them live in rural isolation and they subsist on foliage and berries gathered in the surrounding woods. Izzy becomes restless and pushes the boundaries of her home and in doing so she encounters the outside world. It’s a scenario we’ve seen before in fairytales and coming of age stories, and that’s partly what Hellbender is, but the film applies a horrific twist to a familiar setup. Many stories are about young people escaping a repressive homelife in pursuit of their full potential. Izzy does that but in a horrific way and Hellbender dramatizes the fears of parents and especially parents of adolescent children. As in adolescence, Izzy is changing in front of her mother and that metamorphosis is intimidating. But the film also has moments of warmth between mother and daughter and the interplay of familial affection and horror movie scares makes Hellbender a unique picture. The movie visualizes Izzy’s development with some startling images that are visceral but arty, giving Hellbender a dream-like visual style.
What Doesn’t: One of the outstanding qualities of Hellbender is its brevity but the movie ends abruptly. The conclusion brings the themes and storylines to a close but does so in a way that is so quick that the filmmakers miss opportunities to draw out the tension. There are opportunities to explore the changing relationship between mother and daughter and the kind of woman this teenager will become but the end of the picture saws off any potential for additional exploration.
Bottom Line: Hellbender is a frightening little horror picture. Although it is concise to a fault, the movie is a unique portrait of parental fears and it has startling images that are viscerally horrifying but contain larger implications.
Episode: #894 (March 13, 2022)