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Review: Hellbender – “a terrific slice of American folk-horror”

Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams, Rinzin Thonden

Prefaced by a historical flashback, a small town executing a woman accused of magic and attacks against her neighbours, this is a pretty interesting and frequently macabre film right from the kick-off – a judicial hanging, shooting and fire, just for starters! The bulk of the film is set in the present day, in a remote, rural part of New York state, where mother (Toby Poser) and teen daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) live a very isolated yet seemingly content existence, their large house set in its own private woodland.

Izzy has a rare condition, meaning she can’t be in contact with other people. As a result, her mother has home-schooled her for her entire life, and she can’t go any further than the boundary of their wooded property. While she and her mother seem happy enough together – frequently jamming together to play metal – there are hints fairly early on that there is far more going on here than a “boy in the bubble” healthcare approach. When a disoriented hiker comes across Izzy walking alone in the woods, she is startled – she’s not used to talking to anyone other than her mother, let alone a stranger, and of course she’s had it drummed into her that if anyone gets too close, her condition means she could be compromised (this also evoked memories for me of the early days of Lockdown, pre-vaccine, where we all kept our distance from the few others we passed in a street).

Her mother appears as the two talk – the man not only asks for help in directions back to the road and his car, he talks to Izzy, mentioning his niece who is around her age and goes to school nearby, which intrigues Izzy with notions of the outside world and potential friends her own age. Her mother orders her back to the house and starts to show the hiker his way back to his car, to usher him from their property, but then starts asking him questions, which soon set the viewer’s alarm bells ringing – especially when she begins questioning him about if he is married, has children, basically if anyone will notice right away if he doesn’t go home. Any horror fan knows where that is likely to be leading…

But the seeds have been planted in Izzy’s brain, and she goes from content with her remote lifestyle to curious about the rest of the world. She spies on a young woman using a garden swimming pool (Amber, played by Lulu Adams), but Amber sees her hiding in the treeline, and soon the two are talking then enjoying the pool and a beer together. Izzy tells her about being kept at home, and away from school and other people, and about the band she and her mother formed and play in, which they call Hellbender – Amber is taken with that idea and nick-names Izzy “Hellbender”, inviting her to come back and meet her and a couple of other friends later. A teen prank that sees her having to ingest a live worm causes a strange reaction in her – not triggering some medical shock, but something more spiritual, even supernatural.

Her mother is, of course, not too happy about this growing situation, and starts to explain to Izzy the real reason she’s been kept isolated all this time, about her true legacy and why ingesting that creature caused such a visceral reaction. Izzy, like her mother, and her mother before her, is heir to certain abilities, and like many abilities, they can be very dangerous if you are not skilled and trained in how to control them, something she is going to have to now learn from her mother.

I found this to be a terrific slice of American folk-horror – the isolated, rural setting really adds to the atmosphere. It transpires that this, and the tiny cast, comes from necessity – not just because of a small budget, but because it was mostly filmed during the Covid Lockdown. It’s a family affair – the mother-daughter here are in fact a real-life mother and daughter, the friend Amber is her sister, the uncle (and co-director) is her father, and the family wrote, directed, produced and starred in it, while each taking turns as a tiny film crew during Lockdown. I think that necessity actually helps the atmosphere and brooding, isolated, country Gothic feel of the film immensely. It also shows nicely in the acting – before I learned they were real-life mother and daughter, I felt the connection between the pair seemed very convincing; a scene where Izzy is slowly learning of her magical heritage was especially good, the young woman closely watching her mother’s actions with a close but clearly affectionate look, imitating what she was doing. It’s a tiny moment in one scene, but it’s moments like that which help sell you on the reality of a character and make you invest emotionally in them.

There are numerous very stylish touches here, many done in a very non-flashy way, being used for creating more atmosphere rather than trying to be showy for the sake of it, which I appreciated. From lashed-together wooden sigils (a nod to Blair Witch and some other notable horrors) to simple but very creepy moments (the mother cutting herself, placing her wounded hand on a piece of wall, for a bloody keyhole to appear with key on the back of her hand to access a secret space) this is filled with well-deployed visual and aural elements to maximise that creepy, disturbing atmosphere the film already draws on just from the location in the Deep, Dark Woods. The mythology here was also quite refreshing, even to an old horror-hound like me, as it didn’t just do the “oh, actually you’re a witch or vampire” type reveal, their family heritage and abilities are more convoluted and unusual. Add in a very interesting take on the coming-of-age story, and a subsequent, slowly-changing family dynamic this causes, and some very creepy, dark moments, and you have a cracking little Indy folk-horror for the dark autumnal evenings.

Hellbender is released by Acorn Media International as a Shudder Original on DVD (including extras such as how the effects were created, behind the scenes, more of the music the characters play) on September 5th.

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