Movie Review: Hellbender

Nashville

The most recent Shudder Original also happens to be one of their best, and one of the best horror films of the year so far. Produced by the filmmaking family behind 2019’s The Deeper You Dig (which I must confess I still need to watch), Hellbender functions more or less as a conventional coming of age story, only with the typical fears and anxieties of that format alternately supplanted and exacerbated by the incorporation of witchcraft.

Among the modern glut of independent horror films – to say nothing of the ones specifically focused on witches and witchcraft – this can’t help but stand out for the sheer creativity and low-budget ingenuity on display. Even setting aside its compellingly endearing origins, this is an exceptionally well-rendered piece of work. I think the sheer novelty of the Adams Family being a literal family who makes films together implies that one should grade their work on a curve of sorts, but I’d argue that one absolutely needn’t bother with such a thing. This would stand out regardless of the method of its creation, and I’m thrilled that this has already generated the kind of buzz that will encourage audiences to discover this for themselves. 

Toby Poser as Mother, Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

Typically thrown in as a feint towards production value on productions of this scale, the occasional drone cinematography used here is put to thrilling purpose throughout as a means of illustrating the film’s more overt supernatural elements. Often thrown in on productions of this scale to patch over or “enhance” what’s already in the frame, the CGI effects and embellishments here are nearly faultless in their implementation, and never detract from the narrative they’re there to support. The sound design is rich and well-realized throughout, and even the original songs generated here for the titular mother/daughter band manage to bullseye that perpetual moving target that’s perhaps best described as a synthesis of the realistic and the mundane. 

And just as a narrative, I found this wildly compelling for the manner in which it’s told. From the opening prologue depicting an (attempted) hanging, through the leap to the present day narrative and everything that follows, the story unfolds more through visuals and purposeful vignettes than it does through more conventional exposition. Story beats are often meaningfully elided to generate confusion and doubt in the audience’s mind (such as the fate of one angry neighbor, for example), and the particulars of the relationship between the mother and daughter characters (played strikingly well by co-creators Toby Posner and Zelda Adams) remain mysterious in a way that encourages audience speculation while still preserving an air of suspense and unease. 

I was also impressed by the extent to which such a visually-minded production still managed to leave so much to the imagination. The Adams Family are not afraid to present bold visuals, even at the risk of looking goofy, and the end result is that the risk always pays off. There are a few stretches of hallucinogenic imagery that thrillingly hint at a much larger world outside of this film’s 82 minutes, but that also don’t go out of their way to over-explain or elaborate on the film’s many lingering mysteries. The audience is wisely left with these idiosyncrasies to puzzle out, which is the kind of seemingly small-scale creative decision that makes a world of difference. One of the benefits of viewing this at home, as opposed to in a theater, was that it afforded me an opportunity to research the disease that’s briefly mentioned here during a key moment in the film, and the information I found was both completely absent from the film and totally enhanced my experience watching it. That speaks highly to the care and skill with which this film was assembled, and I can’t wait to see what’s up next for such a talented group of filmmakers.
Cut from the folk horror cloth, this successfully mines a similar vein of horror to Midsommar, or to Ben Wheatley’s more pastoral freak-outs (In the Earth and A Field in England), and anyone who’s a fan of those films would do well to sit down with this one.  
Hellbender is now streaming on Shudder and AMC+

– Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

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