My (brief) notes on Hellbender, which is now out on DVD from Acorn Media and streaming on Shudder.
‘Something between a witch, a demon and an apex predator.’
Teenage Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives on an isolated property with her Mother (Toby Poser), who has told her she suffers from an autoimmune deficiency and can’t be around people, though they happily perform together (with facial makeup) in an impromptu rock combo H6llb6nd6r – the Adamses make up their own music, which is pretty good – and Mother passes on folk wisdom with amounts to magic. Mother also vaporises a hiker (John Adams) and we tumble early that hellbenders are something other than human (the dynamic has a dim echo of Sleepwalkers). Izzy meets an outgoing girl Amber (Lulu Adams) and is sort of drawn to human company – only for mother to tell her she’s not unhealthy, but dangerous. At one point, Izzy makes up a parable about a wolf who wanted to be a sheep as a song lyric and it emerges that this is the real story – Mother, who describes her own mother as a monster and admits hellbenders are self-generating like ferns, has raised Izzy not to be a monster, but eventually the girl discovers and embraces her true nature.
A lot of folk horror tropes – twisted twig arcane symbols, witchy flashbacks, sinister woodcraft – are deployed, but that rock music gives it an unusual flavour. Like the Adams Family’s The Deeper You Dig, it has a real feel for rural specificity – this family make movies in their backyard, only they’re really good at it. It’s not a familiar tale and the lead performances are piquant and affecting – sweet and funny but also terrifying – as a fable-like tragedy is played out with spring eating winter and wolfishness returning. Highly recommended.
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