★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A true family effort, Hellbender sees a mother and daughter at odds when the youngster discovers a secret that her mother kept from her and the power that it involves.
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser
The Adams Family — father John Adams, mother Toby Poser, and daughter Zelda Adams — who broke through to a wider audience with their 2019 supernatural chiller The Deeper You Dig, returns with another occult-based horror film, Hellbender. It follows in the tradition of terror tales about young girls coming of age into paranormal powers, such as last year’s excellent The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw and the classics Carrie (1976) and Ginger Snaps (2000). The result is a captivating effort that focuses on a mother-daughter relationship built on lies and that heads toward a gleefully outrageous climax.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a young teenager whose mother (Toby Poser) has kept her hidden from virtually all other humans in their forested home area, telling Izzy that she has a disease that does not allow her to get close to other people. Izzy’s main pastimes include wandering around their property and playing moody postpunk music with her mom. When one day she takes a chance and goes swimming with older neighbor girl Amber (Lulu Adams, another daughter in the Adams family), she begins to doubt what her mother says about her illness.
When Izzy revisits Amber and some of Amber’s friends at the pool, she ingests a live worm at the bottom of a tequila shot, which opens the door to bizarre, deadly behavior. Pandora’s Box has been opened, and Izzy learns why her mother has deceived her. Though Izzy and her mom initially continue having a loving relationship, that can’t last forever once Izzy starts understanding the true, dangerous power that she has inherited.
There is occult eeriness throughout Hellbender, with hints of peril paving the way to suspicion of what might be happening offscreen to full-blown horror with visual effects that are all the more impressive considering this is a low-budget independent feature that is truly a family affair. Zelda gives a fine performance as the initially awkward Izzy, and as her character’s personality continually changes and she grows more sure of herself, she nails all of the different emotions asked of her. Poser is also impressive as Izzy’s overprotective mother, and the two have a palpable natural chemistry together, as might be expected from an experienced mother–daughter acting duo. Lulu is intriguing as the free-spirited neighbor who befriends Izzy before things go sour, and John is also solid in an extended cameo as a man who accidentally wanders onto Izzy and her mom’s property.
With three people credited as codirectors, Hellbender feels like the family members had a truly shared vision. There are no jarring differences in the direction. The family members split or shared duties on almost all other aspects, from cinematography to editing to music and more, and all of those departments are technically sound.
Some elements of Hellbender tread familiar territory, but the film splendidly pulls off its family drama angles and delivers a deliciously chilling performance from Zelda Adams. It looks great, too, and unravels its mysteries at a steady pace.
Review by Joseph Perry
Hellbender screens as part of Montreal’s Fantasia 2021, which runs online from August 5–25, 2021. For more information, visit https://fantasiafestival.com/en/.
Hellbender premieres exclusively as a Shudder Original Film on Thursday, February 24, 2022.