Over the course of their eight-year collective filmmaking practice, the Adams family have continuously honed their aesthetic and narrative interests as artists. With Hellbender, the sixth feature from the nuclear family of filmmakers, confidence and creativity converge to produce something that feels like an alchemic breakthrough. Particularly following their 2020 supernatural thriller The Deeper You Dig, it appears the Adams have acquired a penchant for horror—a perfect complement to their signature low-budget, home-grown style. Though Hellbender utilizes many recurring motifs present in the Adams family’s work—such as dysfunctional family dynamics and nods to John Adams’ former career as a punk musician—it is certainly the most (literally) fleshed-out project the family has undertaken to date.
16-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams, the youngest daughter and fellow co-director of John Adams and Toby Poser) has been warned from a young age by her mother (Poser) that the outside world will cause her nothing but harm due to her rare autoimmune disease. As such, Izzy spends her days frustrated and friendless, with only the vast landscape surrounding her mother’s reclusive mountain home providing her with any semblance of personal enrichment. Despite being forbidden to leave the property, Zelda’s relationship with her mother is far from acrimonious—they are playfully affectionate with one another, cradling each other’s faces in their hands and venturing into the verdant forest for rainy day hikes. They even perform in a drum and bass punk rock band, appropriately named Hellbender, donning audacious face make-up and practicing tight, catchy songs for the sole benefit of themselves. Of course, natural teenage curiosity eventually becomes too much to bear, and Zelda befriends a girl named Amber (Lulu Adams, Zelda’s older sister) who hijacks the pool owned by some “citiots” while they’re out of town. When Izzy eats a worm during a round of gross (but mostly harmless) tequila shot hazing, she begins to exhibit strange behavior that appears aggressive toward Amber and her other friends. Apparently, a Hellbender isn’t just a name reserved for a punk rock outfit. It also refers to ancient, witch-like beings who derive great power from the fading lives of dying creatures. When they consume the blood and flesh of one such lifeform, it intensifies their own powers. It turns out Izzy isn’t sick at all, but has merely been cut off from society due to her mother’s fear that she’s a danger to those who interact with her.
The coming-of-age emphasis of Hellbender is absolutely bolstered by Zelda’s close involvement with her parents as a writer and director, with her lead performance oozing a palpable sense of adolescent loneliness and volatility. While Izzy’s status as a sheltered outsider is easy enough to relate to, her descent into a frenzied hunger for power completely subverts her original characterization, shattering any generic relatability the audience may have once had with her. This is far from a bad thing—the existential ego death many will vouch for having experienced as a teen is taken to its most nauseating extreme, provoking a familiarity that is slowly revoked with each escalating incident. Hellbender is also specifically tethered to womanhood, as it appears the titular entities only generate through matriarchal lineages. It’s clear that Izzy and her mother have an incredible closeness, but the rigidity and claustrophobia of being confined to the mountain abode draws a wedge between the two over time. Men are featured minimally throughout the film—even a brief appearance from writer/director/dad John Adams serves to move the plot forward as quickly as possible without lingering on any pesky character details. Relationships between women are hardly presented as idyllic and without conflict, but the near total absence of men (aside from the two women’s victims) can’t help but feel pointed.
Where John does shine, however, is in the original music written for the film. Channeling his pre-filmmaking days, he perfectly imbues each Hellbender song with adequate bite yet plenty of mystic charm, conjuring a sound that is both wicked and witchy. Zelda and Poser have phenomenal chemistry and stage presence, making their exploits as the gig-less rock band nearly more engrossing than the supernatural slant the film employs. It would have been phenomenal to see the music take an even more pronounced role in the film, a la Green Room’s Nazi punk horrorshow. Perhaps if the film had remained more focused on unpacking the unexplained intricacies of the lore inherent to hellbenders and their witchcraft, the punk rock angle wouldn’t have stolen the show—though there’s never any harm in taking a break from folklore to showcase fun face make-up and melodic, moody tunes.
Every facet of Hellbender has the intrinsically magical quality of being hand-helmed by a small faction of creatives that execute every stage necessary for the film’s production. The cinematography by Zelda and John is just as impressive as the laid-back yet quirky costume design by Poser. The end result is completely stunning in its scope, tandemly laser-focused on two individuals and their insular livelihood while exploring the vast terror of supernatural possession. By the time the film come to a gory, gloomy conclusion, the viewer walks away feeling thoroughly put through the wringer—inherited traumas, overbearing impositions and brooding bloodlust are never presented in a completely straightforward fashion, providing ample twists to accompany any revelation the film wishes to divulge. Tethered closely to the emotions and artistic sensibilities of the tight-knit family that created it, Hellbender is a can’t-miss foray into folk horror. Unabashedly creepy yet perplexingly comforting, it will inevitably remind audiences of the most eccentric aspects of our upbringings. At the same time, it will evoke deeply-concealed memories of the anguish of undergoing growing pains—a veritable hell on Earth if there ever was one.
Directors: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Writers: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Stars: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams
Release Date: February 24, 2022 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan