[Fantasia Review] ‘Hellbender’ Is an Exciting Addition to the “Horrific Female Coming-of-Age” Subgenre

The Adams Family are doing the kind of pioneering DIY work that most low-budget independent filmmakers can only dream of. The trio – composed of John Adams, Toby Poser and their daughter Zelda Adams – write and direct all of their films collaboratively. They also act as editor, cinematographer, DP, costume designer, music composer, and producer. The family is truly a one-stop-shop for film production.

None of this would matter if the films weren’t any good, but they’re suitably impressive. Their latest, Hellbender, is an exciting new addition to the “horrific female coming-of-age” subgenre and bears more than a few similarities to Julia Ducournau’s Raw

The film follows a mother/daughter pair who live a solitary life on an isolated mountain. Izzy’s (Zelda Adams) relationship with Mother (Tobey Poser) is affectionate and easy-going; they have their own rock band (H6LLB6ND6R), they’re vegetarians who live off of the flora in the woods, and their lives are relatively peaceful. 

Still, there’s something not quite right in the way that Mother refuses to allow Izzy to come into town with her, or how the road to their property is marked off with a warning sign. And when Mother ventures into town for supplies, she’s recognized by an elderly man who swears she’s much older than she looks.

Soon enough, a chance encounter between Izzy and a lost stranger (John Adams) in the woods sets the plot in motion. While Mother ensures the man won’t talk, Izzy latches onto an offhand remark he made and for the first time, ventures over to a neighbor’s property. There she meets a teenage girl named Amber (Lulu Adams, Zelda’s sister) who, despite Izzy’s immuno-compromised state and slight home-schooled awkwardness, befriends her and encourages Izzy to break out of her shell.

It quickly becomes clear why Mother keeps a close eye on Izzy, though. Hellbender is more than the name of their band: it’s also a description of what mother and daughter are. It’s never confirmed, but the words witch and demon are both references (and the film’s fixation on blood as a powerful and captivating elixir offers another potential reading). Regardless of how the women identify, once Izzy’s power is unlocked, all hell breaks loose.

Hellbender’s narrative is more accessible than The Deeper You Dig, the Adams’ surreal film that rocked Fantastic Fest back in 2019. Despite this, they have maintained the same hallucinatory visual aesthetic, evident in the dream-like visions that Izzy and Mother experience when they touch a mysterious book. These visions of the future are full of fiery, smoky, melting imagery, captured in rapid-fire, music video-style editing. 

Similarly, when the women perform their occult spells in the woods, the camera adopts a hazy iris lens to evoke the point of view of objects floating up into the sky. This coincides with the theme of voyeurism baked into Hellbender’s premise: Mother watches Izzy, Izzy watches Amber, and anyone who unexpectedly lays eyes on the women in the woods runs the risk of becoming ash.

While the film’s casual mythology may strike some as unfinished or deliberately opaque, it also encourages viewers to develop their own explanations and backstories. This is especially true of the opening sequence, which visually evokes a witch trial as a coven of women hang a woman from a tree, only to discover that she won’t die. Who the woman is, what she did to deserve this fate and what happens to her when the hanging doesn’t work is an exciting proposition that hangs over the film, which is in no hurry to fill in the blanks.

At its core, this is a coming-of-age film about a teen girl who rebels against an authoritarian parent figure. Izzy is quiet and reserved until she reaches a stage of maturity – and a level of independence – when she begins to question everything. Then she becomes enamored with her own power, actively seeking to disobey and strike out on her own path. It’s a tale as old as time, only this time the byproduct is a world full of animal bones and several human casualties.

Hellbender doesn’t break the mold, but it is an accessible, enticing film that should gain the Adams Family a legion of new fans. Keep an eye on this DIY family; they’re one to watch. 

Hellbender has been acquired by Shudder for an early 2022 release.