How does a low-budget horror film released through a little-known production company succeed in the mainstream markets? Well, it probably doesn’t. But “Hellbender” (2021) has all the qualities necessary to do just that.
“Hellbender” is a folk horror coming of age story about a teen girl, Izzy (Zelda Adams), kept isolated in the woods by her mother (Toby Poser) under the pretense of a contagious illness. Eager to dip her toe into the world outside the forest, Izzy quickly realizes her mother has been using a supposed disease to protect Izzy from her genetic linkage to hellbenders, ancient witches who have historically used their magic to torment the humans they came across. The movie explores themes from occultism to generational trauma to maturity.
Izzy and her mother, the only characters featured in the majority of the movie, are played by a real mother-daughter duo. They also directed the movie alongside Poser’s husband and Adams’ father, John Adams. Other members of the Adams family (unquestionably the best last name for a family that creates horror movies) take on small roles throughout the movie. The labor of love (and cheapness of labor) involved with writing, directing, and starring in a movie alongside your family explains much of why “Hellbender” excels as a low-budget film.
The heart of “Hellbender” is in its mother-daughter relationship. The dynamic during the film’s first act is predictable. A naive, well-behaved teenager lets her curiosity take hold, much to the dismay of the overprotective mother, who is somehow caught off guard by this sudden rebellion. Izzy’s mother responds with drastic measures to suppress the teen’s eagerness to venture out of their world. It is during Izzy’s inevitable journey out that the movie takes an unexpected turn. It becomes clear that, while Izzy’s mother would have been wise to educate her daughter about the power she holds and the history of the hellbenders, she was not so misguided in shielding her daughter from the world, or rather, shielding the world from her daughter.
Izzy returns from her journey changed, her powers having been awakened. And as she learns the extent of her abilities, the power dynamic between mother and daughter shifts. The mother is revealed to be one of few pacifist hellbenders, who uses magic simply to keep her daughter hidden. Izzy, having minimal knowledge about hellbenders’ villainous bloody past, has no interest in suppressing her ability. She craves power, and she wants to be feared. The complexity needed in the acting and dialogue to fully express these characters for what they are, three-dimensional beings, who are neither good nor evil and have intricate ever-changing motivations, could not have been achieved in such a low-budget movie without the assistance of pre-existing familial relationships. This is not meant to undermine the stellar acting and writing presented in “Hellbender.” It is simply meant to emphasize how exceptionally this film executed its central characters, alongside the movie’s numerous other features.
One feature that adds to the uniqueness of the film is its score. It isn’t perfect, but it is certainly original and allows the Adams family to add yet another personal touch to their movie. The soundtrack seeps into the movie, clearly performed and composed by the film’s creators in variably jarring ways. It is not unpleasant music, and the scenes where Izzy and her mom are performing the music are very entertaining. But when the score supports an otherwise unmusical scene, it adds a campiness absent from the rest of the film. Metal music, like that present in the soundtrack, can create a fun, powerful score, but it does not fit in a slow-paced folk horror.
The directorial style in this movie, while fitting comfortably alongside other folk horror movies, is compelling and accounts for most of the suspense and terror created throughout the movie. The Adams family has, above all else, a brilliant sense of light and dark. For a film about witchcraft, morality and discovery, lighting in a scene matters greatly. Given this film takes place largely in the middle of the woods, lighting and an emphasis on certain colors are everything to keep an audience on edge. “Hellbender” clearly understands that. Much of Izzy’s descent into evil is captured through lighting. While the movie begins with the two leads happily playing music in the well-lit center of a room surrounded by darkness, “Hellbender” ends with Izzy holding the only light source in a black void above her mother while threatening her. It is also worth emphasizing again that this kind of particular, extremely controlled lighting, is not easy to achieve in a low budget small production movie like this one.
Whether you are a fan of folk horror, witches, metal music or family turmoil, “Hellbender” is the movie for you. It is a carefully crafted, exciting film made by lovers of the genre but released too quietly for most audiences to hear about it. Despite any flaws, it far exceeds what one would expect from a mother-daughter witch story of this scale.