Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Written by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams
Not surprisingly, when horror fans hear there’s a filmmaking trio called the Adams family creating their own intimate brand of micro budget scares, it’s going to peak our interest. When John Adams, Toby Poser and their daughter Zelda premiered The Deeper You Dig at Fantastic Fest in 2019, it was clear they could make a compelling, dark tale out of a fistful of dollars and a big idea.
Unfurling their generational witch story this weekend at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Hellbender proves that this family just put some stakes in the ground and is here to stay. A coming-of-age story that’s more about discovery than maturity, it’s the real-life connection between mother and daughter that winds up being the true heartbeat of the film.
And as with any truly memorable movie about witches, Hellbender really rocks. In their own private two piece band that rivals the Flat Duo Jets, Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her Mother (Poser) get in full costume and makeup and perform to an audience of none. Their band Hellbender is only for them, even when Izzy starts to question why they can’t show what they can do to the rest of the world. Izzy is sheltered and immunocompromised and under the constant thumb of Mother.
It’s not until she ventures out and meets Amber, a nearby neighbor (played by sister Lulu Adams) with a wild side, that Izzy starts to worry that she’s even stranger than she thought. After a poor man’s version of a drinking game where she swallows an earthworm standing in for a tequila larva, a powerful connection to the Earth emerges. Suddenly asking way to many questions, an ancient truth is revealed between mother and daughter that unleashes Izzy’s true sense of purpose.
There’s a voyeuristic streak running through Hellbender that’s built on Izzy’s intrinsic curiosity and her mother’s instinct to protect. There’s also the desire to be watched and when they perform as Hellbender, it liberates them. “Witch” and “ritual” are never uttered during the entire runtime (I believe) because they might be something more than that. They are the Hellbenders.
The onscreen connection of Adams and Poser is already powerful. But their scenes together feel especially tangible given the real-life mother and daughter bond they share. Emotional beats hit harder, keeping some surprising cosmic elements a little more grounded. Sudden jolts of visual effects work also make Hellbender fly higher in just the right spots.
Wearing multiple hats, the Adams’ really are the family that does everything together. It’s a unique working relationship that hopefully continues for a few more films until they get completely sick of each other. It’s only natural that they might want to branch out in the future, just like Izzy. Unlike Adam McDonald’s more frightening family depiction of the occult in Pyewacket, the more runic, witchier elements of Hellbender embrace the unknown. There’s nothing to be afraid of, especially yourself (even if your Mom is a little out there).
Look for Hellbender on Shudder sometime in 2022.
Hellbender makes you want to rock out, cast some spells, and hug your mother.