Perhaps one of the more unique approaches a horror film can take is making commentary on family dynamics, specifically between a parent and child. Over the years, this plot device has gifted the horror and slasher communities with cult classic films such as Hereditary and Carrie. Personally, I find it no surprise that many horror directors and writers have found inspiration in family dynamics, as many peoples’ families are horrific, dramatic, and sometimes violent. But the dynamic between mother and daughter which can be found in Hellbender is unlike any I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a horror movie. Ironically, this movie was requested for me to review by my own mother, Jody. Thank you for showing me this film and I hope you enjoy the thoughts I have to share on this.
Hellbender (2022, dir. John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser) follows a mother and daughter living alone in the middle of the woods. The daughter Izzy (played by Zelda Adams) has an supposed illness preventing her from leaving the home and interacting with others. If this wasn’t strange enough, the two are often seen in the beginning eating nothing but pine cones and leaves collected from the surrounding woods. With their large home, luxuries, and expansive private property it’s hard to imagine how this is for necessity rather than willing choice. While walking through the forest one day, Izzy meets a girl named Amber (played by Lulu Adams) who she quickly befriends. While drinking with Amber and a few other peers, Izzy is handed a drink with a live earthworm wiggling at the bottom. Upon consuming the worm, the first non-vegan food Izzy has ever ingested, Izzy begins to have a psychedelic experience not unlike someone’s first time on shrooms. Shortly after this experience, Izzy’s mother explains that they are creatures known as Hellbenders – nearly immortal witches who get their power from consuming other beings while they’re still alive. The rest of the film explores the life of a Hellbender and follows Izzy as she becomes hungrier and hungrier for more power.
Going into this film completely blind, I was excited to find another horror film which utilizes a fairy tale structure for the core of its plot. Whether this was done intentionally or not, Hellbender very closely follows a story structure similar to the Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel. Though there is no hair being let down nor Prince Charming to save Izzy from her mother, the writers have put a twist on the narrative. While Hellbender begins as a standard Rapunzel story with Izzy being a prisoner in her own home, the narrative shifts about halfway through the film. Imagine instead if the sorceress had a reason to fear Rapunzel and keep her locked away. While the mother has been able to control her urges to live an average human life, the power that comes from consuming living beings is brand new to Izzy and she rapidly seeks out more. This comes to the point of Izzy ultimately taking over the household and asserting her dominance towards her mother on several occasions. By the film’s conclusion, the mother is terrified of her own daughter and what she’s capable of, and the audience understands why Izzy was kept locked away in the first place. Personally, this is a very fun and unique retelling of the Rapunzel story, and from this point of view I enjoyed the film a lot in this aspect. I love seeing modern adaptations of fairy tales, more specifically if the film isn’t in-your-face about the story being a retelling. Or in other words, I prefer it when the story isn’t obviously meant to be a retelling, rather the story has a similar structure as seen in Hellbender and one of my earlier reviews, Skinamarink.
While the plot was very enjoyable, I found myself wishing for more from this film. There were some themes, items, and topics which came up in the plot that I believe could have been expanded upon such as Izzy’s crown, the family’s history, and the abandoned house in the woods. The film opens with an introduction to what the audience later understands is a tribe of Hellbenders hanging who would be Izzy’s grandmother for her crimes against a local village. The appearance and costume designs of these women are capturing, and throughout the film I found myself wondering if we would return to them in a way that was more than prophetic flashes. In some ways, I feel as if I might have been more intrigued by the grandmother’s story as she seems to have been the only one in the tribe so hungry for power that she risked everything else. While we do get to hear the reason she died as well as understand the anatomy of a Hellbender, I believe it may have been a more enjoyable experience if we were shown her crimes rather than offhandedly told so.
The crown Izzy wears in the film’s poster and that’s purchased very early in the film has absolutely no significance to the story and only gets used once during a scene of Izzy simply playing the drums. This grinded me a little bit only for the fact that the crown is such an iconic piece to give one’s main character only for it to not be utilized in moments that it could have been really cool to see Izzy with it. For example, moments towards the end of the film where Izzy is slowly becoming more powerful than her mother, or the film’s finale in the tunnel. For such a neat piece of costume design that could have significant symbolism to the plot, it doesn’t get used nearly enough and I was saddened by this. Likewise, the abandoned house Izzy finds in the woods right before meeting Amber for the first time never comes into play again later in the film. I had several guesses for how this house would come back up in the plot: perhaps it was Amber’s real home and she was roughing it in the woods, it might have been a place for Izzy to escape to, or maybe it could have been a place for Izzy to hide carcasses from her mother. But, nothing happened and I found it to be an unfortunate waste – why was it ever included in the first place if we were not going to return to it?
I give Hellbender 4 out of 5 coffins
I found the story and visuals on this film to be very appealing, and it is a film I would be happy to rewatch in the future. The visuals and special effects, while I didn’t give much time to discuss them, were absolutely stunning and beautiful. There’s a consistent cool, blue tone overlaying scenes that aid in the psychedelic experience to watching Hellbender that I really enjoyed. However there are some aspects of it which I find could have been improved to make it a more well-rounded storytelling experience. It also suffers a curse that many independent films face which is being stuck in only one or two settings. This can make the film feel dull to some and as if events are not progressing. While I had no issue with this, I understand that it is an issue casual moviegoers may have trouble with.
Hellbender is available to stream through a Shudder subscription and to rent through Amazon Prime Video starting at $4.99