E. L. King calls Hellbender a bloody coming-of-age journey of self-discovery and a unique occult story exploring love, fear, power, deceit and identity.
Love, fear, power, deceit and identity are themes at the heart of Hellbender. It explores the delicate and complex relationship between a mother and daughter and feels like an allegory for the tonal shift between parents and children as kids grow up and become independent. Izzy (Zelda Adams) has lived a sheltered life—isolated and lonely in the Catskill Mountains with only the companionship of her protective Mother (Toby Poser) and the sprawling wilderness that surrounds them. Believing she has an auto-immune disease, she is free to roam the woods, but vigilant in keeping her distance from others. Starved to be seen, to connect with her peers and exist in the world like everyone else, she befriends Amber (Lulu Adams), but a cruel and childish prank forces Izzy to eat a live worm, awakening a hunger and dark power inside her—its origins kept secret by her Mother under the guise of an illness.
“Magic comes from fear. The fear of death. Every living thing has it. The more fear pumping through the blood—the more power.”
The film is an Adams Family Films production, co-written and directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser, Hellbender is a coming-of-age journey of self-discovery. It's bloody from the onset, with just the right amount of gore to compliment the narrative. Plenty of occult symbolism can be found, detailing a Hellbender's power as something dark and ancient, a power that even those who wield it fear, a power that is not a gift, but a curse. The score is ominous and cold, softly prickling at your ears as if casting a forbidden spell and you can also rock out to H6LLB6ND6R, a punk-metal band with 16-year-old Izzy on the drums and her mother on bass.
The sound design effectively builds tension and terror as echoes and whispers of actual spells permeate your senses, like electricity in the air whenever Izzy's power pulsates just beneath the surface throughout the film. Discovering the source of her power, Izzy doesn't shy away from it, but yearns to embrace it. While her mother holds back, continuing to sheild Izzy from the magnitude of her power to prevent her dark transformation.
“You know why we’re called Hellbenders—because we’re powerful and anything powerful is feared. Our ancestors grew drunk on that fear. They craved it and so it was said we had turned our backs on Heaven and bent towards hell. Do you want that kind of legacy? To be soulless, unloved, feared.”
It’s easy to identify with the isolation and loneliness that Izzy feels. She’s been trapped in a beautifully idyllic prison of her Mother’s making under the guise of protection since infancy. Befriending Amber and others her age helps Izzy to feel validated and seen as an individual for the first time—that likely felt empowering. It's that first taste of independence that is the catalyst that fractures her relationship with her mother, before the knowledge of her power is even revealed. She can sense the carefully constructed lie that has been her life and while she loves her mother, she wants to break free. Her mother begins to divulge their magical origins in an attempt to teach Izzy and keep her from walking a dark path. However, secretly and diabolically, Izzy has already begun her journey down a path to darkness and has no intention of being tamed. In our own way, we've all been there as teenagers longing for freedom, wanting to bend and break the rules and make our own decisions.
Through a vision and a very eerie song written by Izzy, who writes all the songs for thier band H6LLB6ND6R, she reveals to her mother that she’s already uncovered and embraced her true nature. She is dangerous, she’ll eat your fear and enjoy it. When her mother discovers Izzy’s “happy place,” a dark crone's hole underground, Izzy confronts her and asserts her dominion over her life and her power—provoking her mother to reveal her true face. Her mother pleads with her that their magic, "isn't a gift," but chillingly Izzy tells her, “The people that believe in good and evil, god and the devil, if they want to believe in hell so badly, I’ll give them hell.”
Hellbender is a unique folk horror film, with a fantastically crafted magical mythology inspired by folklore from several cultures. It's deeply scary, relatable and captivating. The film really showcases the Adams family's strengths as filmmakers and we're eager to have them continue making horror films. The film is available to stream exclusively on Shudder.