Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) live a simple existence in their house in the middle of the forest, living off of foraged foods and spending their time creating music with their two-woman (one bass and one drum) band H6llb6nd6r. As happy as Izzy is with her lot in life, she is terribly lonely and isolated. This changes after a chance encounter with fellow teen, Amber (Lulu Adams). As Izzy starts to become more independent, she uncovers a connection between her family and witchcraft Thereafter a power battle between mother and daughter begins to unfold.
Hellbender moves along at a punchier pace than Deeper You Dig, but this does not detract from the amount of atmosphere and emotion that the Adams family infuses their latest piece of art with. From the opening moments, which take place centuries ago during the climax of a hanging, to the disturbing end, Hellbender is steeped in feelings and awash with sensory delights. This group of filmmakers really have honed their craft and have created a film which is a technical marvel, whilst not misplacing any of its soul. The opening sequence presents a series of confronting images, intensified by the fantastically grotesque sound design that mixes the sounds of the forest with mixed strangled breathing. As beginnings go, this one immediately catches your eye (and breath), and the best thing is Hellbender is only just getting started.
From here the story fast-forwards to what one assumes is a version of present day wherein we met Izzy and her mother during one of their band rehearsals. The music that they are singing has, as with so many of the other elements, been created by the family. The self-written and performed songs, which are super slick, stylish, and catchy, generate a bass-heavy grungy vibe that easily signposts the ‘out of the mainstream’ nature of existence. Their isolation is further confirmed from the expansive amounts of camera shots of the woodlands, lakes, and mountains that surrounded their home. The cinematography is breath-taking in beauty and fully celebrates the best that Mother Nature has to offer. Even the plates of simple foraged food have been lovingly constructed and look straight out of an art gallery. Whilst our filmmaking family pay respect and homage to the flora and fauna upon which they have made their film, they also demonstrate how to perfectly craft vision sequences that seep into the mind and induce a trancelike state of being. These visions are a dangerous potion of psychedelic hallucinations, kaleidoscopes of colours, and spooky shadows.
From a narrative standpoint, Hellbender entwines the fates of the two women together and presents two separate, but interconnected plot strands. The first is a coming of age / awakening story surrounding Izzy. Zelda Adams inhabits the role beautifully, perfectly imbuing Izzy with that awkward fish out of water kind of outcast teenager angst with which we are so familiar. The scenes between Izzy and Amber offer the more mainstream narrative structure, but as Izzy uncovers her truer self, their relationship morphs into a dark and sinister affair. Our other strand follows Mother’s struggle to keep control over Izzy. It’s a situation that parents everywhere can relate to some degree. Furthermore, Mother is only ever referred to as such. Primarily because she doesn’t interact with anyone outside of Izzy in a friendly capacity, but the move also serves a subtle dual meaning. Often, once motherhood kicks in, women are perceived as being entirely that, any other attempt at identity is stripped away from them. By only identifying Toby Poser’s character in such a way, it pushes this idea to the forefront. There’s also a clever analysis of the idea that parents struggle with the concept of being replaced by their children.
The attention to detail is apparent in every fibre of Hellbender’s DNA, and the most captivating is the work they have done creating the lore for their Hellbender beings. The race of beings are a riff on witches, vampires, and demons; their magical power coming from blood and the fear contained within it. It’s a super interesting blend of all the nightmare creatures, one that is backed up by a vast amount of lore, the trio birthing their own cinematic Occult “monster” for future generations to lose sleep over.
There is literally no end to this family’s talents. They act, write, direct, shoot, and even sing together with not a bum note between them. Every aspect and element of Hellbender oozes style. Whether it’s the catchy music, the breathtaking imagery, compelling narrative, or phenomenal sound design, there is something to enrapture and enthral all who dare to glance upon it. A strong contender for creepiest film of the year, Hellbender chews you up and feeds on your fears before spitting you out again forever changed.
The Adams family have knocked it out of the stratosphere with their follow-up to the already stunning The Deeper You Dig. How they top Hellbender I have no idea, but I’m already salivating at the prospect at seeing what that project might be.
This review first appeared on THN.