It can be useful to refer to movies in terms of “good” or “bad,” but those terms are so subjective that they often aren’t helpful. A well-crafted production that makes zero technical mistakes could be utter, unrepentant, mean-spirited trash. A movie that uses the same animated .gif-level effects recycled a million times and a cast of clearly amateur actors could, by virtue of its creators’ enthusiasm and dedication, be an unforgettable masterpiece. There are types of good and bad movies, and they depend a great deal on whether you are willing to meet the film and the filmmakers halfway. Certainly you can make allowances if an independent feature length film has, say, a ho-hum script. You could understand if a small stable of actors might lack range, or fall into type-casting across a number of movies. If lighting, sound, shot composition, score or incidental bit of production design (a creepy witch’s grimoire, or a song sung by the movie’s leads, or the paintings a quirky cat burglar leaves behind when he robs houses so that he can justify that he’s not stealing, or the mask his grade school partner in crime crafts for him) isn’t up to the level of a Hollywood production, you might try to suspend disbelief. If the movie lacks sophisticated visual effects or interesting makeup or costume design, you could certainly imagine how tough it might be to accomplish that sort of thing yourself and give it a pass. But if you make an honest effort to do that and you get something out of it—if the filmmakers managed to speak to you on some level and convey something—it can’t be that bad, right?
Hellbender, the sixth feature-length film by Wonder Wheel Productions and the immediate followup to its last horror entry, the exceptional The Deeper You Dig, requires no such grace on the part of the viewer. Both are damn good horror movies any way you could reckon it. This is all the more astounding because, as everybody who has written on Hellbender has been sure to note, this is almost solely the work of just one household in upstate New York, with just a few other actors extras. In just two features, the Adams Family (perfect) has become a notable name in horror.
(Note: Be wary of spoilers for Hellbender and The Deeper You Dig.)
Husband John Adams, wife Toby Poser, along with their daughters Zelda and Lulu Adams, collectively direct, star in, shoot, edit and even score the films, starting with 2012’s road trip drama Rumblestrips. There are certainly benefits to having close relationships with your artistic collaborators, so it shouldn’t really be surprising that a decade into their efforts, the family’s craft has improved. It’s just that it’s improved a lot and, with Hellbender, it feels as if Wonder Wheel has found their genre.
Wonder Wheel’s second feature, Knuckle Jack, is a sweet story of Jack (John Adams) whose only stream of income is pawning the items he steals from homes. As he explains to his young niece (Zelda Adams), the reason he hangs the paintings he drunkenly creates each night in the homes of the people he steals from is because he isn’t stealing, he’s selling his art. (She is unconvinced, but insists that if he’s going to be a robber, he needs a mask—she makes one for him that is both kind of creepy but believably crafted by a child). In between trying to overcome his addictions and make himself someone trustworthy, Jack can’t seem to avoid the woman (Poser) with whom he’s been trading sex and money for substances.
It’s a cute movie, and the actors are leveraging their real life relationships to put in naturalistic performances. Throughout, there are interesting shot compositions, intelligent directing choices. Contrast all of this with The Deeper You Dig, where Poser and Zelda Adams are again cast as mother and daughter, but John Adams is cast as the drunk driver who runs over the daughter of a penny ante Tarot card reader who, it turns out, might know far more about the veil between our world and the hereafter than she reveals to her bereaved marks.
As with their earlier features, the familial relationship in The Deeper You Dig is one of the strongest things to recommend it: Poser finds herself in the position of a grief-stricken loved one willing to turn to unholy methods just for a word with her daughter, and a major theme is Zelda Adams’ ghost’s adoption of her mother’s occult powers in order to exact her creepy-as-fuck revenge. It’s a tight script made unforgettable by truly unnerving uses of costuming, makeup and other practical effects in service of some unforgettable scenes.
As a first foray into full-on horror, it really feels like the filmmakers striking upon their calling. As the fifth movie they’ve made together, it looks and feels nothing like their earliest work, with every actor doing completely different things. As a supernatural horror revenge story that plays on themes of loss and an inability to come to grips with it, it’s right at home in conversations about stuff like We Are Still Here, An Unquiet Grave or Koko-di Koko-da.
With Hellbender, Poser and Zelda Adams return again as another mother-daughter duo connected by a supernatural power, but it’s an order of magnitude darker than their last movie. The two live alone on a mountain, the daughter never allowed to make contact with the outside world. They put on face paint and rock out in their house to an audience of nobody. (Of course, the tracks are actually featuring the two, because the real-life Adams family also has a band, “H6LLB6ND6R,” because I’m sure they need to fill all their free time somehow.) John Adams shows up in a quick role as a hitchhiker who is sadly unaware of why nobody should ever want to encounter young Izzy and her mother. (Poser uses her witch superpowers to mulch him immediately.)
The story is about a daughter growing out of her family’s protective influence, discovering a frightful power within her, and taking on a role of power in relation to her mother. Zelda’s real-life sister Lulu Adams shows up as the girl’s first real-life friend, and someone who swiftly becomes a victim of her intense transformation. As a story about usurping one’s elders, it’s one of the few I can think of that centers on a mother-daughter relationship rather than a father-son one, and while it is true that it benefits immensely from the real-life relationship the actors have, that’s by no means the only thing on offer. There are themes that resonate, images that stick with you, and plenty of gnarly, gory spectacle for horror fans.
I’ve said before that it’s really exciting to watch the style of talented creators grow with successive projects, and Hellbender is another great example. If the Adamses have settled upon horror as their specialty and keep forging ahead with this level of artistry and discipline, we have many stories with creepily intimate plots and fucking buckets of blood to look forward to, indeed.
Kenneth Lowe cut its claws and cracked its teeth and buried deep the wolf beneath. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.