[Fantasia 2021 Review] HELLBENDER

[Fantasia 2021 Review] HELLBENDER
Courtesy Shudder
A mother/daughter bond can be a strong one or it can be a destructive one. Most parents would like to think they are doing what’s best for their child without always taking the time to consider what their child may really want. Now imagine that scenario again but this time sprinkle in a family legacy of witchcraft, a teenager coming into her powers, and a mom trying to do her absolute best to protect the daughter she loves, and you have the Adams’s sophomore film, HELLBENDER.

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is an isolated teen living in the Catskills with her mom (Toby Poser). Confined to her house due to an autoimmune disorder, Izzy spends her days mostly with herself when she’s not hanging out with her mom rocking out to their band, Hellbender. One day while Izzy is out in the woods, she meets Amber (Lulu Adams) and a weird sort of friendship begins to develop. After being dared to eat a worm, Izzy begins to experience an unexpected change and comes to realize that her mother may be holding back a life-changing secret.

HELLBENDER is a coming-of-age story and a study into the bond between a mother and her daughter. The film opens with a witch hanging from the olden times. It’s detached, emotionless, and cold. Soon after we meet Izzy and her mom in present times. The coolness of the previous scene has now vanished and is replaced with full, lush, bright scenes of their house and surrounding forest. There’s a false sense of comfort when one views such a sight. A reminder that nothing bad should happen during the daytime. However, we are given indicators that something feels off with what we are seeing. And nothing gave me more pause than a scene where the mom is leaving to run an errand and while closing the gate behind her, the viewer gets a peek at a sign that says, “Beware of…just be aware…” indicating that something much worse than a dog could be hiding behind that sign.

What follows is a story of lineage, of secrets long kept buried that find themselves reluctantly at the surface, of coming into one’s own identity and power. The majority of the movie falls on the shoulders of Zelda Adams and Toby Poser; both of who accomplish the task of drawing the audience in and keeping them engaged in the unfolding story. As Izzy begins to understand the powers she possesses, her mother is there to help guide her, regardless of the consequences that come from it. It would make sense that the relationship onscreen feels so natural and real considering they are real-life mother and daughter. I can only imagine how special this experience must have been for the two of them.

Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

Just like with their first feature, The Deeper You Dig, the film’s visuals are nothing short of impressive. Whether it’s the black/white contrast, the psychedelic imagery, or the nightmare fuel moments that come out from the deepest corners. My only issue with the visuals was the CGI sometimes felt cheap looking as opposed to other times when they really popped. An example was when the key hand was used to unlock a secret door. Luckily these issues were few and far between, and just as easy to forget.

With each film, the Adams family continues to fine-tune their skills. Toby Poser is once again immaculate – giving a performance that feels ripped from her soul. From The Deeper You Dig to this, Zelda Adams is growing into a talented actor who knows how to make an impactful scene memorable. I found I was more drawn to her more dramatic moments in the film as I feel that is where she really shows the range she is capable of whereas the more grounded performances fell flat at times. Additionally, this is Zelda’s first feature film where she is co-directing alongside her parents, John (who has a small cameo) and Toby. Adding to the family fun is the addition of Zelda’s sister, Lulu, who plays Amber. So when people say this film was a family affair, it really, truly was.

HELLBENDER is a fascinating take on the witchcraft subgenre. It doesn’t follow the same beats and lore that so many other films do. Instead, it sets itself apart as its own unique thing with its own bewitching story. HELLBENDER is just as much of a tale about a mother/daughter relationship as it is a horror film that spirals into chaos and murder. If anything, Adams’s sophomore film goes to show that the talented family isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

HELLBENDER¬†had its World Premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The film will be released exclusively on Shudder on Thursday, February 24, 2022.

Shannon McGrew
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