Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives in a house in the woods with her mom (Toby Poser). Her mom has told her that she has an immune disorder, and exposure to other people could hurt her or maybe hurt the others. She’s homeschooled and the only person she ever sees is her mom. Since Izzy is an older teen, you might expect that Izzy’s personality would be exceptionally odd or off-putting, but actually she’s very easy-going, just mildly shy. That probably has something to do with her mom relating to her in a pretty relaxed way.
The mother and the daughter seem to have a good relationship. They’re physically affectionate. They play in a band together. When the mother goes into town, she always asks her daughter if there’s anything she needs beforehand, and when she returns they sit down together on the porch and go over the haul. And the mother keeps a close eye on her daughter: whenever she gets worried, she can just cast a scrying spell with an arrangement of dried flowers and a rune made from her own blood and see her daughter wherever she is. And if any strangers get too close to her daughter, she offers to show them the way out of the woods and then, when no one is around (especially not her daughter) she vaporizes them.
Yes, Izzy’s mom is a witch, or in the mythology of the film’s world, a Hellbender. What’s a Hellbender, you ask? “It’s kind of a cross between a witch, a demon and an apex predator,” as it’s explained at one point in the film. “They live off the fear that pumps through human blood, which gives them exceptional power. They’ve been around since the dawn of time, and they’re still evolving.” So Izzy’s mom has a secret, and that secret poses a problem for Izzy. But the exact nature of the problem is kept a secret, not only from Izzy, but from the audience. Part of the fun for genre-savvy viewers will be trying to figure out what kind of story the Adams Family is telling this time.
Mother and daughter in this movie are mother and daughter in real life. Toby Poser is married to John Adams, who proposed to her under the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. Together, Poser and Adams have started a family (with Zelda and an older sister, Lulu, who is also in Hellbender). They have also started a production company (called Wonder Wheel) which is, largely, the family. Together they made The Deeper You Dig, an offbeat ghost story that made it to Shudder (now available on Shudder). The special effects artist Trey Lindsay, who worked with the Adams family on both films, described their process this way: “They all have equal say on every shot, every take. They share directing duties in terms of suggesting different needs on lines or alternate takes. And since they’re also the lead performers, they cycle through and take turns depending on who’s on camera.”
Which reminds me: in the movie, “Hellbender” is not only the word for what Izzy’s mom is, but the name for the punk/goth band that Izzy and her mother have started. Songs from Hellbender pepper the soundtrack, infusing it with anarchic, ominous energy. So, in addition to writing, directing and operating the camera together, the family also wrote all the songs in the film.
It seems appropriate that Hellbender is about a family that has a tight bond because they’ve lived together in isolation from the world for years. You would think, from the exuberance and confidence with which this crew makes a movie, that they had been working together for lifetimes. But really this filmmaking team has only been around about 10 years. It wasn’t until 2011 or so that Adams and Poser pulled their kids out of school for a year to drive around the country in an RV and make a movie (2013’s Rumblestrips). They’ve gotten good at this. A viewer will notice that the budget must have been low, certain rough edges related to the sound and image, but there’s a sense of style that feels anything but amateur. There are scenes in Hellbender that are lit and framed like the cover of an old LP from your parents’ collection, the kind that gave you nightmares when you saw it as a small child. Some of those same scenes pack an emotional punch that shows that the Adams family has been reflecting on their fears as a family and translating those fears into supernatural horror very effectively.
A lot of films about girls or young women either sideline their mothers through various means, or depict the relationship as distant and strained. Even as Izzy begins to undergo a transformation and there are new strains on the relationship, she remains close to her mother. That’s part of how the movie taps into the fears of parents. As a father, I know both that I am on a journey with my kids, and also that they are on a journey as they mature, one that I don’t control. I know they will go through transformations as they mature, sometimes dramatic transformations. So I know I’m going on a trip, but I can never really know where I’m headed. That is a deeply unsettling feeling, which Hellbender captures.
There’s a zany energy that makes the movie corny at times; for instance, the scenes where the band is rehearsing are shot like a music video, zooming in and out with more enthusiasm than finesse. That same energy could make the movie engaging even for jaded horror fans. There’s a rhyme that the mother and daughter repeat to each other through the movie, relating to meals: “Spring eats winter, winter eats fall, fall eats summer, summer eats spring.” The Adams family give a great demonstration of how earlier genre influences can be eaten and completely transformed, bringing about a transformation into something fresh.
Check out our recent interview with the Adams Family.
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