“Hellbender” shows off one family’s filmmaking talents but falls flat under the weight of its poorly developed plot and dialogue. [Fantasia International Film Festival]
Originally published on Elements of Madness.
From Rosemary’s Baby to False Positive, Psycho to Mommie Dearest, motherhood and the horror genre are a match made in heaven. The labyrinth of psycho-socio-political issues surrounding motherhood, pregnancy, and the mother-child relationship has truly found its home in horror cinema. One of the horror flicks showing at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Hellbender, is not only about motherhood, but also stars a real-life mother-daughter duo. In fact, Hellbender was written, directed, shot, edited, scored, and produced by the four members of the Adams/Poser family: John Adams, Toby Poser and their two daughters, Lulu and Zelda Adams. All four family members also make an appearance in this occult horror film, with Zelda and Toby taking the lead roles. The family filmmaking feat is incredibly impressive, and Hellbender’s high production value showcases the family’s talents and creativity. Unfortunately, however, one little filmmaking misstep can bring a movie crashing down. In this case, that one misstep is the dialogue. While Hellbender is otherwise horrifically beautiful, the script and plot development leave much to be desired.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) enjoys pretty normal teenage activities, like drawing, playing music, and spending time outside, but her life is far from normal. Izzy lives a bizarre and isolated life with her mom (Toby Poser) on a secluded mountain property protected by “beware” signs and shadowed by a tall foreboding forest. Izzy is homeschooled and is forbidden from making friends, and her mom claims that she has an autoimmune disorder that makes it unsafe for her to be around other people. For years, Izzy has entertained herself by playing drums for her mother-daughter band, “Hellbender,” but she’s yet to perform for anyone in the outside world. As we watch her mom engage in witchcrafty rituals and feed her daughter “vegetarian” dinners of sticks and pinecones, it’s clear that something dark is brewing beneath the surface of this mother-daughter relationship. Izzy’s curiosity about the outside world soon gets the best of her, and she ventures away from her property to try and make some friends. But when she sneaks out to learn about the real world, she ends up learning something sinister about herself instead.
Hellbender immediately asserts its place in the occult horror genre with a chilling opening shot that pans over a pile of blood and bones. The first scene is unique and visceral, grabbing our attention with grotesque imagery and high-intensity storytelling that relies only on acting and cinematography. In this scene, a group of women (from some time in the past, based on their attire) stand silently in the forest as they prepare to hang another woman whose head is covered with a burlap sack. However, it’s immediately clear that there’s something different about this hanging, and the tension rises until a strange turn of events blasts us into the present day. The soundtrack changes from a demonic score to a gritty, contemporary rock song, and we meet Izzy and her mom as they rehearse a number for their band. This incredible scene sets a horrific, punk-rock, and cheeky tone, connecting occult symbolism of the past to a modern-day setting and contemporary characters. The opening scene sets us up to expect a raw and disgusting, but fun and rebellious, horror flick.
However, this opening sequence proves to be the strongest one in Hellbender, and the remainder of the movie doesn’t quite live up to those expectations. The story gets off to a good start by establishing the unique relationship between Izzy and her mom and foreshadowing the conflict to come. We get to see the mom interact with some people in town while Izzy is forced to stay home, and we begin to pick up on some of their strange living habits, like eating twigs. And yet, the film can’t seem to move past this initial exposition, getting caught in a back-and-forth pattern that shows Izzy walking alone in the woods while her mom practices various occult rituals. It feels like forever before something significant and exciting happens. While it never hurts to space out the significant events of a story, the space between those events needs to be filled by interesting scenes that build tension and develop the characters. In Hellbender, the spaces between the climactic plot points are flat and repetitive. Hellbender also establishes a strange sense of time overall, making it difficult for us to figure out much time has passed without the characters telling us. On the one hand, this bizarre sense of time emphasizes Izzy’s isolation and loneliness, revealing that time passes differently for those who are totally cut off from society. On the other hand, there’s not enough happening in the plot to sustain this odd sense of time. Although the story idea behind Hellbender is strong, the plot is bumpy and uneven. It watches like a short-film script that has been stretched into a feature length film.
Still, it’s worth making note of two or three standout filler scenes that do help pick up the pace. While no scene quite lives up to the opener, the strongest parts of the film are the musical montages that bring back that rock/ horror tone, like when Izzy and her mom are goofing around in the snow. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in these sequences, just action and a fun rock song. Perhaps it’s just the upbeat music in these scenes that provides a nice change of pace, but the soundtrack and visuals in Hellbender definitely do a lot more character-building than the dialogue. It’s the scenes with minimal conversation that make the characters in Hellbender seem most developed.
The dialogue-heavy scenes, on the other hand, slow things down again. The dialogue throughout Hellbender feels too direct and unnatural, and the characters often tell each other exactly what they’re thinking and feeling in a robotic, forced manner. The lines sound like stage directions or character descriptions that were written to instruct actors about their characters rather than to develop the story for an audience. The conversations in the film also have this choppy and forced rhythm that makes them even more awkward and uncomfortable. The actors deliver their lines in a flat cadence and never quite land on the appropriate emotional delivery. Instead of creating conflict through nuanced conversations and individual performances, Hellbender spoon-feeds us details about the characters through clunky, straightforward dialogue.
Still, the Adams/Poser family demonstrates masterful filmmaking skills in the visual aspects of Hellbender. They combine outstanding set design, cinematography, and special effects to create a strange and unusual world you won’t soon forget. In the midst of its underdeveloped story and dialogue, Hellbender surprises us with spooky shots that highlight the power dynamics at play between Izzy and her mother. The camerawork draws our attention to the most bizarre and obscure parts of Izzy’s world, sometimes coming at objects from an odd angle and other times making the occult aspects of this world seem photogenic and beautiful. The special effects are not only impressive but are also creative, adding unique twists to visual horror movie symbols that we’ve seen before. Hellbender is also defined by a cohesive color palette of dark neutrals that shadow Izzy’s world and highlight her isolation.
In some cases, a film’s strengths can outweigh its weaknesses. But, unfortunately, the stunning visual style in Hellbender can’t make up for its off-putting dialogue. Perhaps the dialogue is only so disappointing because the first scene set such a high standard for the rest of the film. Still, the underdeveloped and forced lines muffle the imagery and set design, resulting in a highly unbalanced movie. Despite its intriguing lore and interesting take on motherhood and horror, Hellbender is a good idea that never quite takes off.
Release Info: Screened at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."