Sixteen-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives with her mother (Toby Poser, Adams’ real-life mother) in a beautiful but isolated home on a forested mountain. So far as Izzy knows, she has an immunosuppressive disease that makes contact with other people dangerous, hence she can’t go into town with her Mom, and has to be home-schooled instead of attending the town school with other kids.
Izzy’s existence is not entirely terrible—she doesn’t seem ill, she and her Mom have a sweet relationship, the woods are beautiful, and there’s plenty of time for her to develop her artistic talents. Mother and daughter even play together in a goth band, H6LLB6ND6R. On the other hand, Izzy is a teenager and as such is becoming less willing to accept the restrictions placed on her, let alone continue to simply accept her Mom’s version of reality. It’s also clear from the opening frames of Hellbender that there’s more going on in this household than Mom’s cover story would suggest.
When a friendly stranger (John Adams, Zelda’s father and Toby’s husband), apparently lost, wanders on to their property, it’s a sign of cracks in the fortress. The anonymous stranger will be telling no tales, but through him Izzy learns of a girl named Amber (Lulu Adams, Zelda’s sister) her own age who lives nearby. Not long afterwards, Izzy is paying a socially-distanced visit to her neighbor, and they hit it off so well that she is invited to come back and hang out with some more kids.
Teenagers will be teenagers, and soon they’re playing a drinking game that results in Izzy eating a live earthworm. This unleashes a strange violence in her, which breaks up her new friendship with Amber and pushes Izzy back into an isolated relationship with her mother. It also forces the truth to come out: the story about the illness was a ruse, and in fact Izzy, like her Mom, has magical powers that can be dangerous. And there’s no going back: as Mom says, Izzy has opened a door that cannot be shut, although she can learn to keep her newly awakened powers in control. You’ve probably heard that one before, but the reason filmmakers keep drawing on it is because it’s both an effective horror premise and a suitable metaphor for raising (or being) a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.
Hellbender is a family project, written and directed by Poser and John and Zelda Adams, with music by John Adams, cinematography by John and Zelda Adams, and costume design by Poser. It’s a film that keeps you on your toes for its 82-minute running time, through interesting shots and visual effects, abrupt shifts of mood, and a twisty plot that has no interest in sticking to anyone else’s playbook. Hellbender references various aspects of the folk horror tradition, including iconography echoing The Blair Witch Project, but it’s also its own unique creation. I’ve seen a lot of low-budget horror films in my day, but never one quite like this before. | Sarah Boslaugh
Hellbender will be available for streaming on Shudder beginning Feb. 24.