Fantasia Review: 'Hellbender' Heralds the Arrival of a New First Family of Horror Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, John Adams, Lulu Adams
Published Aug 17, 2021The Adams filmmaking family are making a name for themselves in indie horror circles. Following up the success of their breakthrough movie, 2019's The Deeper You Dig, they attempt to carry on their success, testing the limits of practical effects and VFX on a limited budget. In Hellbender, John Adams, Toby Poser and their daughter Zelda Adams create a unique coming-of-age tale in the occult world that should delight their fans and introduce them to new ones.
Hellbender follows a mother (Poser) and her daughter Izzy (Zelda), who live on a mountain isolated from civilization. Upon a chance encounter with a stranger (John), Izzy discovers there is a house nearby and ends up befriending another teenage girl, Amber (Lulu Adams). Izzy believes that she has an immune system disease that forces her to keep her distance from others. During a visit with Amber, it becomes clear her mother's warnings have nothing to do with protecting her, but rather keeping her away from others.
After Izzy confronts her mom, she relents and teaches Izzy the ways of their lineage. Once Izzy realizes the great power that lies within her, all hell breaks loose.
Hellbender is an original folk horror with elements of witchcraft and demonic possession. The surrealist elements that made The Deeper You Dig so successful aren't present in Hellbender, although the visuals remain strong. Hallucinations, dream-like sequences and frenetic camerawork give Hellbender the feel of a music video, which is aided by the actual rock musical interludes of Izzy and her mom.
The performances of Poser and Adams ground the film well. For all the occult aesthetic and lore, Hellbender is about a mother helplessly protecting her daughter from the world, and a daughter who wants to forge her own path. Obviously Poser and Adams have practice at the mother-daughter dynamic, and it translates well onto the screen — albeit with a couple muddled line readings.
If The Deeper You Dig didn't put the Adams family on the radar of horror fans, Hellbender should. They are a breath of fresh air in the genre and in filmmaking in general. For an industry dominated by advanced computer graphics, sometimes to the detriment of story, the Adams family and visual effects artist Trey Lindsay bring back the clever use of practical effects. This gives the film an old-school horror feel but in a modern setting with the latest cameras.
Where Hellbender falls is its pacing. For a film that is under 90 minutes, the movie can feel really slow and sluggish. Too much time is spent setting up mom and Izzy's life before anything of substance happens. The payoff is some cool gore and a solid ending, but Hellbender runs the risk of losing its audience before they get there.
Hellbender is a tale as old as time, but in the realms of witchcraft, the Adams family give it a unique spin. If you're into horror, this is certainly one to catch — but if not, this one might be too niche. The Adams family are a trio of filmmakers to look out for.
Fantasia Film Festival runs August 5 to 25 in Montreal. Screenings take place both virtually and in-person. (Shudder)