By: David De La Riva
Horror may have a new family, but they have a very familiar name! HELLBENDER, a folk occult horror film, is a family affair that comes from the minds of the Adams Family; Zelda Adams, John Adams, Lulu Adams, and Toby Poser; the kin of talented family members all directed, wrote, edited, and starred in one of the most bizarre and fresh interpretations of a coming-of-age story the horror genre has ever seen.
Underlying this wonderfully horrific female-empowered metal tale of witchcraft is a story of adolescence and maturation that will simultaneously intrigue, disgust, shock, and horrify you until your skin is crawling right off your body. HELLBENDER is as metal a horror indie film as you will see, and it will undoubtedly cast a spell on you.
Naturally, HELLBENDER begins as many coming-of-age tales often do, in the 17th century, during a witch’s trial and subsequent hanging. While unclear exactly who is being hung at the time, we can bear witness to the power and fortitude that the witches, called Hellbenders, have in this world, and how taking them down is a lot harder than a simple hanging and/or shot to the head…
After our fascinating, little journey back in time, we travel to present day, where we meet 16-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser). The two survivalists live an isolated life on a lonely mountainside, and Mother has taught Izzy everything she needs to know to survive; how to live off plants and berries and a strictly vegan diet, to enjoy and bask in the beauty and peace of nature, and most importantly, how to stay away from society due to her “illness.”
Izzy, however, dreams of bigger and better things. She wants to be a musician, to travel the world and perform her songs, she wants to simply be able to go out and meet another human being and have friends. This starvation for companionship leads Izzy to travel outside of her confinement, and meet someone new, Amber (Lulu Adams). The two hit it off, and form a friendly bond, until one day after a cruel drinking game, Izzy eats a worm and things begins to change. Suddenly, she feels an overwhelming sense of power, and a new kind of hunger unleashes inside of her. When she confronts her mother about these feelings, she learns that she comes from a long line of Hellbenders, and her new life is now ready to begin.
HELLBENDER is a film you truly need to see to believe. On a shoestring budget and as minute a production team as there can be, it feels as though it should almost be impossible to make a film this haunting, this shocking, this horrific, frankly, this incredible. However, when you look at the work the Adams family has done in their brief tenure creating films, suddenly we can begin to understand the magnitude of talent we have here. While being massive up-and-comers in the indie horror realm, becoming a festival darling at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival for their wonderful work in The Deeper You Dig, nothing can quite prepare you for just how severely HELLBENDER raises the stakes and shows that the Adams family are not one-hit wonders, but are getting more methodical, more creative, and more masterful in their craft with every release.
From a technical standpoint, the film is phenomenal in just about every way. From featuring truly remarkable cinematography and gorgeous landscape shots, to the haunting and punk-as-hell score and soundtrack, to phenomenal acting across the board, it's hard find any flaws. The only one that comes to mind is the relatively slow pace that does make it feel as though the film is dragging on just a bit, but overall HELLBENDER has everything you could ever want from a technical aspect of a film. Where it truly shines is having some of the most grotesque, disturbing, and flat-out bada** imagery you will see this side of a Panos Cosmatos film.
Moments of disgust, unease, shock, and horror all come to fruition just with simple imagery throughout the film, especially toward the latter half, where we truly go off the rails and all hell breaks loose. HELLBENDER is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking and will absolutely shock you in how hardcore and grotesque it chooses to go at points, and just looking at the film is a treat unto itself.
As astonishing as the technical aspects of the film are, HELLBENDER is also beautifully mirrored within the family ties both behind and in front of the camera. The portrayal of a superbly brilliant, powerful, and haunting relationship between a mother and her daughter elevates this from spooky occult film to something truly special. Zelda and Poser are the heart and soul of this film, and in their relationship, we get to see the anger, sadness, fear, joy, pride, accomplishment, and terror. We feel everything we possibly can between these two, and it is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, and is arguably the best part of the entire film.
Watching a person grow right before your eyes is always an interesting story to tell, the maturation into becoming an adult and realizing that life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows is a story that we are all far too familiar with. However, when said person suddenly has a craving for flesh and powers of the occult, the story goes from interesting to nightmare-inducing, and the amount of time and effort that the team went in to making sure the story felt as real as possible is what truly makes this film stand out.
HELLBENDER is a master class in low budget independent horror, and a phenomenal outing by the Adams family. The film revels in the grotesque and shocking images that it puts on screen, but at the end of the day it is a familial bond that elevate this film to something truly special. The Adams family are proving themselves to be masters of their craft, and have given audiences something so special and unique in HELLBENDER that it feels like a privilege to witness this film.
HELLBENDER is available to watch on Shudder February 24.