“Hellbender” is an ominous, chilling “all in the family” witchcraft thriller that wears its low budget lightly and its air of doom with pride.
A lot of people named “Adams” scripted, directed, shot and starred in this gloomy Pacific Northwest tale about a spellbinding/spellcasting mother and the daughter she “protects” from the world.
A prologue shows the 19th century hanging and shooting of a “witch” who just won’t die.
Over a century later, a hip mom (Toby Poser) and her daughter (Zelda Adams) get fully costumed and made up for every “rehearsal” for their bass-and-drums punk duo, Hellbender.
Izzy would love to ride to town with Mom for supplies, but that’s brushed off without debate. Izzy is home schooled, living on a remote mountainside farm with just her mother, her music (she’s the drummer) and her own thoughts, which include a lot of questions.
Mom’s given her a diagnosis, convinced her she’s sick and feeds her on the berries, mushrooms and buds of the forest. And God forbid Izzy stumble across anybody on her wanderings of their forested property. Mom is curt, sadly questioning of strangers like a hiker (John Adams) who insists he’s the “uncle” of a neighbor.
When the stranger evaporates in a cloud of smoke, dust, ashes and bones, we get it. Mom’s a witch. And her questions were to ensure nobody would miss this interloper she was about to disappear.
But Izzy’s a teenager, and starting to experience changes to her mind and body. Spying on a neighbor (Lulu Adams) with a pool makes her think she’s found a friend. Because Amber is welcoming, open and unfiltered. This strange girl who looks “like a cross between Kurt Cobain and a wet dog” could use a friend. Come to my pool party tomorrow!
That party is where Izzy gets her first hint (from a med student) that Mom’s diagnosis might be off. And when Izzy has a reaction to something else there, the unraveling of her cloistered life begins.
The Adams family that made this film limited its scope and characters, focusing almost wholly on the mother-daughter dynamic. The other characters are here to be avoided, for their own safety. We’ve seen what Mom is capable of, and its not just getting guitar sounds out of her electric bass (their music is spooky, and polished and processed). Who knows what the teen girl might do once she “knows?”
Zelda Adams and Poser, co-stars and co-writer/directors with John Adams, are great at conveying a realistic “just keeping you safe” clingy mother-daughter relationship. The story may follow a well-worn “child outgrows the parent” path, but they keep it interesting.
John and Zelda Adams also shot the film and, with a little help from the weather, keep things grey and overcast, matching the tone they were going for.
A big tip of the hat to special effects technician Trey Lindsay, who visualizes hallucinations (visions), vaporizations and the cacophony of Izzy’s galloping teen mind. Low budget or not, his work makes “Hellbender” come off.
The acting can feel flat and unpolished, and the intimacy of the story is both an asset and a limitation to its ambitions.
But any horror fan looking for the next “came out of nowhere” genre phenomenon need look no further. It’s not the “Citizen Kane” of witch movies, but it’s creepy and DIY fun and well worth tracking down.
Rating: unrated, grisly, gory violence
Cast: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams. John Adams.
Credits: Scripted and directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser. A Yellow Veil release on Shudder.
Running time: 1:23