Hellbender (2021) poster

Hellbender (2021)


USA. 2021.


Directors/Screenplay – John Adams, Zelda Adams & Toby Poser, Producer – Toby Poser, Photography – John Adams & Zelda Adams, Music – John Adams, H6llb6nd6r Music – John Adams, Lulu Adams, Zelda Adams & Toby Poser, Visual Effects – Trey Lindsay. Production Company – Yellow Veil Pictures/Wonder Wheel Productions/Adams Family Films.


Zelda Adams (Izzy), Toby Poser (Mother), Lulu Adams (Amber Hansen), John Adams (Uncle), Shawn Wilson (Forest Ranger), Rob Figueroa (Pool Owner), Rinzin Thonden (AJ), Khenzom (Ingrid), Judy Rosen (Grandmother)


The teenage Izzy lives with her mother on the mountain in backwoods New York State. Izzy has been raised home-schooled because she is told she has an infection that makes it dangerous to go near others. During one of her hikes, Izzy encounters Amber, another teen, who has broken into someone else’s property to use the swimming pool. Izzy sneaks away to meet Amber’s friends but has a negative experience, tripping out after drinking tequila with a live worm in it. Izzy begins to learn from her mother about being what is called a hellbender, a witch who has great abilities to cast magic.

I had previously reviewed The Deeper You Dig (2019) from the Adams Family. The Adams Family consist of father John Adams, his wife Toby Poser and their daughters Lulu and Zelda who between them direct, write, produce, photograph, create the music for and star in their own films. They have also made Rumblestrips (2013), Knuckle Jack (2014), The Shoot (2014) and Halfway to Zen (2016), all of which are non-genre dramas. I had been quite impressed with The Deeper You Dig and looked forward to what they did next.

Once again, the Adams Family split up all the tasks on the film between them, including writing the songs that mother and daughter perform throughout. The only major credit they don’t cover and have brought somebody else in to deal with is the visual effects. The four major speaking roles are filled between them – the principal roles of the mother and daughter are played by actual mother and daughter Tobey Poser and Zelda Adams, while father John plays the uncle who is encountered in the woods and the other daughter Lulu play the best friend that Zelda makes at the pool. Outside of these four roles, we do get some other actors but nobody that appears for more than a single scene. The film also takes places in the same house where much of The Deeper You Dig was shot.

Mother and daughter Toby Poser and Zelda Adams in Hellbender (2021)
Mother and daughter Toby Poser and Zelda Adams
Toby Poser prepares a ritual in the woods in Hellbender (2021)
Toby Poser prepares a ritual in the woods

Hellbender is a film about pauses and silences in conversation. Often dramatic confrontations (like what happened to the man who owns the pool) are left unspoken such that the normal dramatic flow you expect of a film seems slightly offset. In between this are moments that can be quite astonishing – the body of John Adams levitated up into the air and reduced to dust; the Puritan-set prologue with the witch being hung and then multiply shot while still alive living before taking off into the air and bursting into flames. The Adams’ can burst out into moments of often visually stunning psychedelia or striking arrangements of food items (all vegetarian) on a plate. It is a film that broods with things about to happen, even if the actual happening is never quite as effective as the build-up.

Hellbender is a film about Witchcraft and Witches but unlike what has been seen before in the genre. Although we do get the prologue set during the era of Puritan Witch Persecutions, it is neither the clichés of Satanic-styled covens we used to have nor the modern sympathetic form that reconceptualises witchcraft as an alternate religion for women a la The Craft (1996). What we have here comes with a definite darker and more malevolent undertow even as the film is quite sympathetic to the two women it portrays at the centre of it.

Trailer here

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