Hellbender review

Interesting fact: Hellbender is also a type of salamander.

Another interesting fact: this week’s film is a family affair, filmed in lockdown while most of us were rewatching our favourite shows and refreshing the news feeds every eight seconds (just me?). That – it my eyes – makes it a little bit special – and maybe more forgiving about the sometimes shoddy SFX.

But is it any good? Read on pals for the truth. If you dare.

Hellbender (2021)

Growing up is Hell.

A lonely teen discovers her family’s ties to witchcraft.

Director(s): Zelda Adams, John Adams, Toby Poser
Starring: Lulu Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, John Adams

Genre: Horror IMDB user rating: 5.8
My score: 4/5 ∙ Runtime: 86 mins


Teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives with her mother in the woods. Their home is incredibly remote, buried in the heart of the forest surrounded by all the delightful things Mother Nature has to offer. Which is lucky, as Mum (Toby Poser) only pops into town once a week or so for non-foragable items, such as drum sticks and vinyl.

Despite really wanting to join her mother in town on these jaunts, Izzy is relegated to the bench as she lives with a de-habilitating autoimmune disease that puts her at risk. This is also the reason the pair live the way they do, and have since Izzy was just five years old. The women live a pretty dope life despite the isolation – they form a band called Hellbender – and are totally aesthetically a piece of me, with a sound that ain’t too shabby either.

One day, while wandering in the woods, Izzy bumps into a lost hiker (John Adams). The hiker is the uncle of a girl who lives on a neighbouring mountain and after taking a wrong turn, he ends up trespassing on Izzy’s land. This may seem innocuous to everyone else, but Mum isn’t happy and dispatches with Uncle quickly, in a very creative way which sets us up for the rest of this ride.

Later Izzy defies her mother’s strict rules by hiking to the edge of their land. Here she stumbles across Amber (Lulu Adams) a girl similar in age. The pair hit it off well and arrange to meet at the house the following day. Of course Izzy doesn’t share this with her mother when she gets back. The next day, she joins Amber and her friends where they drink tequila and Izzy shows off her drumming skills.

Things pop off dramatically when two things happen. First, Izzy eats a live worm which causes her to feel and act very strangely – and two, the real owner of the fancy house returns and chases the kids away. In the ruckus, Izzy acts threateningly towards Amber which derails their new friendship. She also bumps into the house owner who’s extremely angry and threatens police intervention. This doesn’t come to anything – for reasons – and Izzy returns home.

Meanwhile, word is that a man’s gone missing and he turns out to be Amber’s uncle. Weird huh? With Izzy acting extremely out of sorts, Mum is forced to share a few home truths about her heritage and weirdly, it turns out some of her history just doesn’t add up. As Izzy comes to terms with this new information, with which comes great responsibility – will her mother’s fears come to fruition?

Spoiler: yes, they probably will.

Thoughts

I liked this. It’s pleasingly witchy, quite rich in detail and looks absolutely stunning in places. There are some dodgy effects here and there, but not enough to drag me out of the story – or stop rooting for our central pair.

While Izzy makes some dramatic decisions on discovering her new powers, I still liked her. I’m sure I’d feel exactly the same if I was suddenly omnipotent and still a teenager. It’s just a shame this seems to be cyclical and at the cost potentially (and eventually) of her mother’s life. I do really like the opener too which harks back to Mum’s own mother and her fate, which is padded out later in the film when Izzy asks about what happened to her grandmother.

There is a very psychedelic element to some of the scenes, as the women experiment together with different foods and spells – one particular standout is the frankly disgusting vomiting of blood into each other’s faces. This is fun but it might distract at times from what the hell is going on. Luckily, at under 90 minutes this is a really tightly paced piece.

Incidentally, the same family made another film – The Deeper You Dig (2019) – which I also enjoyed recently. There seems to be a strong theme running through both stories and it leans heavily into the relationship between mother and daughter, which is powerful and complicated. I’d say the Poser-Adams’ are a family to keep an eye on.


What does Jill make of this witchy little number? Would she vomit blood and gore into its face – or let it live? Find out here.

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