By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Fantasia Film Festival 2021
Encore Performance Aug 16th
Coming Soon to Shudder Network
The best part of Hellbender is the punk rock performances which acts like intermissions this film’s story beats. This mother-daughter grassroots act is fantastic (we need a soundtrack release) and one detail I’m fairly certain this film is making is in how the matriarch is slowly controlling how her teen can express herself. From changes in makeup to full on goth (complete with a prerequisite black crown stolen from Mordor), Izzy (Zelda Adams) seems comfortable. When the outback of the New England world is her playground and there’s a babbling brook and a tiny waterfall in their private property, I’m jealous.
It’s civilization that this teen is told to afraid of. Her mother (Toby Poser) and grandmother experienced it, if the introduction is any indication, and they hate it.
This teen supposedly has a medical condition that prevents her from being near people. That’s the fiction her mum reminds her fawn about, but I suspect there’s much more. Perhaps all these lies are to maintain this young woman’s purity. For the matriarch, she’s knows a lot of powerful pagan sorcery, and the label is witchcraft. The introduction suggests that anyone with this ability will be hanged. But when that victim rockets to space and is cackling, I’m guessing some evil cosmic force is laying claim to her soul.
Everything changes when Izzy meets Amber (Lulu Adams) and gets invited to hang out. She’s introduced to a few more people and plays a party drinking game. After losing the bet and swallowing a worm, something within has awakened, and the hallucinations Izzy experiences feels right out of the concept album Pink Floyd’s The Wall. and the story becomes familiar. The chorus in the song, “Mother,” is just dead on.
This coming of age tale turns dark when mamma explains she’s part of a long line of witches. What she doesn’t explain is why this family line has decided to remain in isolation from the world. It’s possible she’s sheltered because folks have feared the Hellbenders (a unique cult of practicing spellcasters who have descended from three different bloodlines) since the 1800s. The backstory takes its time to reveal itself, and when it does, I feel more afraid of what Izzy can become.
She wants friends and social contact. Mum isn’t providing. She learns about chthonic magic, and mother warns about the dangers of collecting too fresh of a material to spell cast from. This world is fascinating as it may be drawn from hedge witch traditions. The mysterious book that tells all includes a few images that need a pause button on in order to figure out what sect they belong to. These people aren’t ordinary witches!
This film nicely delivers something new as we’re uncertain who Izzy made a pact with. When compared to the witch who died and flew skywards, she got closer to the earth. Although these special effects shots are not always perfect (some borders on cheesy morphs for a few quick scares), the fact she ate creepy crawlies dug up from the ground sealed her fate.
I’m fairly sure this film is a one-shot deal. The team involved in the production and performance are related, and this dynamic makes this movie all the more intriguing. Yes, the Adams Family is an emerging pool of talents. Toby Poser, John Adams, Zelda Adams made a name for themselves in the indie scene starting in 2013 with Rumblestrips. Their movies often explore the mother-daughter dynamic and I can’t wait to see what they’ll make next.
3½ Stars out of 5