★★★.5 out of ★★★★★
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser
It is oft said that being a parent is the most unique and rewarding experience one could ever have. Simultaneously it’s the dullest and most common experience among us. There are highs and lows to be sure, but most of the relationships are spent having a meal, doing laundry, and trying to figure each other out.
Hellbender spends the large majority of its hour and 26 minute run time focused on the more mundane aspects of the parent-child relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a wild and peculiar odyssey.
Hellbender opens with a literal bang. Set sometime in the 19th century with an off-putting witch sacrifice. But this isn’t any witch nor is it a routine witch sacrifice. It goes horribly wrong and we’re led to believe that the witch may not be a witch, but some pre-Christian malevolent force. If you ever wondered about the definition of folk horror…this film is it.
Fast forward to the present day and Hellbender drops us into a tight and loving relationship between Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her Mother (Toby Poser). They rock together, they forage the forest floor for all their Wiccan needs, and they sit down nightly at the dinner table to share a feast of pinecones, moss, and grubs. The Wiccan family that forages together stays together.
Izzy’s mother, however, is an oddly protective and secretive force in their lives. Izzy is largely sequestered to their rural property and her Mom is exclusively left to handle the visits to the nearby town and all interactions with those who wander across their property. This strand of helicopter parenting takes on a deep and darker meaning that slowly dribbles out the details of this secret relationship.
As Izzy begins to sew her teen oats the mother/daughter relationship becomes stressed. Izzy seeks out the forbidden, questions their odd living arrangement, and bumbles across the ancient history that may have spawned them both. The symbiotic relationship between modern societal needs and the inherently conflicted associations with nature and the old ways that birthed Izzy and her Mother is at the very core of Hellbender.
The secrets, lies, and overly protective nature of their relationship eventually come undone and their true essence comes to light, or in this case dark. While the power balance between Izzy and her mother shifts it’s not a bad thing, and more importantly, it happens to us all.
Hellbender is a perfectly crafted tale that hasn’t quite ever been told within the horror genre — or certainly not in this way. The cinematography is beautiful, the film locations are carefully and meticulously arranged, and the dreamy sequences provide a chilling subtext for the horror to unfold.
Unfortunately, not a lot of horror or scares are had in Hellbender. Because the film so wonderfully fixates on the demon/witch relationship between mother and daughter, the film doesn’t leave enough time or space for the scares. There is gore, there is evil, and there is tension, but these things all take a backseat to a warm and caring relationship with mother and daughter. Parenting is hard as hell, but it’s also pretty damn scary.
Hellbender is likely Rated R and currently streaming on Shudder.