Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!
Indie films are such a crapshoot sometimes. Sometimes you get The Evil Dead and sometimes you get The Room. Horror is a genre that works really well for indies, though, and for low-budget filmmakers. If you’re making your own thing, you can take stories in a lot of strange directions. If you don’t have a studio breathing down your neck, you can avoid the sort of narrative tropes that are demanded of you for monetary reasons. Hellbender is that sort of vision. It’s a film that has a singular vision and is carried out by its creators, who happen to be a family; most of the cast and main crew of this film are related to each other.
We are presented with teenaged Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her unnamed mother (Toby Poser, who is actually Zelda Adams’s real-life mother). They live in a house in the forest, isolated from the rest of the world; Izzy is homeschooled and we eventually learn that she has been told that she has a serious immunodeficiency, although we will also learn that what she is told she has is general experienced only by genetic males and usually causes them to die in childhood. Among the things that Izzy and her mother do, aside from eating what they can forage from the forest, is play original heavy metal as a bass/drum duet in a band they call Hellbender. They rehearse in full costume, which usually involves heavy makeup, but because of Izzy’s condition, they never play out anywhere; it’s just for them.
We as the audience discover that there is something more going on here, though. We see the mother performing a number of rituals in the forest, spitting up something that looks like blood, and creating odd fetishes that are mildly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Out in the forest one day, Izzy encounters a lost hiker (John Adams, co-director and real-life partner of Toby Poser/Zelda’s real-life father). Izzy keeps her distance and eventually her mother shows up and sends her home. On the pretense of helping the man find his way, the mother starts to lead him out of the forest but instead kills him by—and there’s no other way to say this—turning him into dust.
Out wandering one day, Izzy meets a girl of about her age named Amber (Lulu Adams, Zelda’s real-life sister) who is sitting by the pool of a posh house. Amber invites Izzy in for a swim, and while Izzy keeps her distance, she also enjoys having contact with someone her own age. Meeting up with Amber becomes something of a ritual for Izzy. This changes when she arrives one day and encounters Amber’s friends AJ (Rinzin Thonden) and Ingrid (Khenzom). The trio give Izzy an initiating shot of tequila that contains a literal earthworm. When Izzy swallows the worm, it awakens something inside of her.
I don’t really want to talk more plot than that, because what happens from this point forward is worth seeing cold. This builds up relatively slowly, which is surprising to say for a film that runs less than 90 minutes. It also builds very well and clearly. There are moments with both Zelda and her mother experiencing something close to drug-induced hallucinations, many of which presage what we will see (actually or figuratively) later in the film. There is a definite darkness that runs through this, and much of the film’s narrative is concerned with what feels like the actual darkness in the mother character using that power to protect the naivety and innocence of her daughter.
The truth is that Hellbender was clearly made on a shoestring, but that really doesn’t matter. The effects are used sparingly but well, an indication that the money that was spent pays dividends on the screen. It’s a singular vision, and that pays off as well. It feels unsullied by someone coming in attempting to make things “marketable” rather than letting the story simply happen. It’s also worth noting that the soundtrack is fantastic. Evidently, some of this came from the Adamses musical project called H6LLB6ND6R, and if they’ve got a channel somewhere, I want to listen to it.
Most importantly, Hellbender has something that it wants to say. Buried inside this little indie gem are commentaries on matriarchy and power, on darkness and innocence, about corruption, and about ideas of nature vs. nurture. Hellbender is very much the first hill of a roller coaster. We go up and up slowly, a short dip now and then, but then reach that tipping point and everything happens as an inevitability. It gets to a point where what’s going to happen cannot be stopped, and all we can do is clutch the sides of the car and hold on.
This was really good, and a lot better than I would have guessed looking at the way it was created, the microbudget, and the lack of fanfare.
Why to watch Hellbender: Talented people can do a lot with no budget.
Why not to watch: It could stand to be a touch longer.