The one-clan cottage industry known, aptly, as the Adams family return with another micro-budget horror following the word-of-mouth success of 2019’s The Deeper You Dig. As in that little gem, the bond between mother and daughter plays a pivotal role in the narrative. This time young Zelda Adams steps up to co-direct alongside mum and dad Toby Poser and John Adams, and the result is another entry in the feminine coming-of-age subgenre that brought us Carrie, Ginger Snaps, and The Witch. With limitless ambition and the courage to strain their tiny budget to breaking point at every turn, Hellbender isn’t out of place in that company.
High up in the Catskill mountains, an unnamed mother and daughter Izzy (Poser and Zelda Adams) live an isolated but happy existence. They forage for their food and spend their evenings rocking out with their self-penned riot grrrl garage rock songs. Izzy obediently stays away from others due to some unspecified illness, but an encounter with a lost hiker sparks her interest in more diverse company. Soon, she’s made some new friends without Mother’s knowledge, and a drinking game awakes something dark and dangerous within her that Mother will struggle to control.
An impressively shot prologue keys the audience in to just what familial secrets Mother has been sheltering. Soon, Izzy is learning to walk the same witchy left-hand path as her mother and the scenes of them popping psychedelic maggots together are in a weird way as easy and comfortable as their lo-fi jam sessions. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and teenagers are nothing if not rebellious. Some taut writing, no doubt drawing on the Adams’ own generational dynamic, scores cracks in the mother-daughter bond even as it’s being formed. At its core is Mother’s awareness that Izzy is destined to go her own way, and when she herself headed off on her own journey in the distant past it was at the expense of her mother.
The strength of the writing overcomes any deficiencies in presentation. The Adams’ productions are in no way polished, and some impressive lysergic visuals bounce against the occasional shonky practical effect. The mumblecore, less-is-more style of acting sometimes hits a flat note too, although Zelda Adams and Poser are rarely less than delightful together. Their effortless ease with each other means any iffy moments can easily be overlooked. It’s far preferable for reach to exceed grasp when so much recent genre fare is slick but safe. And for the most part the Adams’ know what they can achieve within their means without constraining their undoubted talent.
Long may the Adams’ continue their merry multi-hyphenate, DIY ways. Although it’s hard not to champ at the bit thinking what they could achieve with anything approaching an actual budget. Until then, Hellbender builds on the success of The Deeper You Dig in terms of aesthetic and the tightly-wound, simple elegance of its central matriarchal quandary. Of course, like the Adams’ themselves, it wisely keeps the theme of family at its very core.
Available to screen on Shudder from Thu 24 Feb 2022