Review: The Adams Family Hits Another DIY Homerun With ‘Hellbender’
The Adams family (though probably not the one that comes to mind if you’re unfamiliar with the New York based family of filmmakers) has crafted yet another darkly entertaining horror film to follow up their haunting 2019 outing The Deeper You Dig, this time opting for an equally intense yet morbidly comical approach to the coming-of-age witch story; a sub-genre that’s had somewhat of a resurgence since Robert Eggers’ 2015 smash hit The Witch captivated audiences and critics alike. Hellbender retains the DIY charm of the filmmakers’ previous outings, complete with the polished homemade visual effects and small, familiar cast fans have come to expect from their passionately made pictures.
After a witch is hanged by an angry mob during a very intense opening scene set a hundred or so years before the rest of the film, a perfectly timed guitar riff kicks in to reveal the title as it transitions to the present day mother/daughter duo the film follows. “Mother” (Co-Director Toby Poser, Rumblestrips) and her daughter Izzy (Co-Director Zelda Adams, The Hatred) are revealed to be the source of the opening song, who outside of the occasional rock sessions appear to lead a quiet, isolated life in their rural forest home. It’s quickly revealed that Mother is keeping Izzy away from other people because she’s “sick” and after a shocking display of aggression towards a hiker (Co-Director John Adams, Knuckle Jack) in the first act, it’s the clear Mother harbors some quite potent magical abilities accompanied by very little remorse.
Shortly after the stakes are given perspective and the characters are established Izzy stumbles across a free-spirited young woman named Amber (Lulu Adams, Halfway to Zen) laying poolside at a nearby vacation home, where after an awkward introduction the two become quickly acquainted. After playing a drinking game involving an earthworm on a subsequent visit, Izzy feels a violent force awaken within her unlike anything she’s ever experienced before. The back half of the film consists of Izzy exploring these new urges while juggling drama with her new friends and battling a standard dose of teen angst, alongside the consequences of her mother’s indecisive handling of the situation finally boiling to the surface. Toby and Zelda assuming their real life mother and daughter roles really adds a dose of believable chemistry to the characters’ relationship which elevates the crucial dramatic elements of the film in a big way, most noticeably in the final act.
The music factors in far more than just in the opening moments with the family’s own band ‘H6LLB6ND6R’ comprising the soundtrack (Seriously, is there anything they’re not talented at?) that gracefully accompanies and at times intentionally clashes with the slow, intense pacing employed in the film. There’s a combination of industrial, fast-paced rock and dreamy, surreal vocal tracks overlaying the events of the films that all feel perfectly placed. It almost has a Rob Zombie-esque, modern exploitation feel at times while maintaining something more along the lines of arthouse sensibilities regarding the cinematography and narrative. These opposing styles lead to a few small fumbles at times when they become too unbalanced, specifically when it comes the middle section of the movie. Things fall into an unfittingly paced, repetitive lull for what feels like a longer period of time than it probably is in actuality, though they manage to turn things around before the slightly overcomplicated but still highly satisfying conclusion.
Lore regarding the history and rituals of the witches themselves in these stories is typically fairly traditional, though the filmmakers took it upon themselves to develop an entirely new strain of witch with a unique backstory detailing their imaginative set of rules and abilities. These nature-oriented ‘hellbenders’ are very well thought out in almost every way and feel entirely established by the time the credits roll. There’s a slew of homegrown visual effects ranging from generally well-executed to downright impressive (even more so when considering the minimal budget) that really heighten the intensity during some of the darker moments in Hellbender’s effectively brief eighty-six minute runtime.
All of these aforementioned elements come together to make for an overall entertaining, refreshing, and well-executed take on a familiar type of story that certainly warrants multiple viewings despite a few noticeable shortcomings. You also have to admire the fact that this is pretty much all done by a singular family who’s out here making meaningful art together because they share a creative vision; that’s definitely not something you see every day. Maybe those powerful imaginations run in the bloodline? Hellbender hits Shudder and AMC+ on February 24, and you can check out the trailer below.