A hooded body hangs from a tree, women surrounding it with stern Puritan faces; someone holds tightly onto the rope strung across the tree, making sure the neck snaps. The women look up at the tree-studded forest skyline, dead body hanging in the center of it all. Except it doesn’t seem dead — a boot twitches first, and then the head, before the whole body shakes and writhes in the air.
A woman pulls out a revolver and shoots the hanging body, blood spraying out into the mist, but it won’t stop twitching. She shoots it again and again, the women looking on in horror until she is out of bullets. One woman pulls out a knife and approaches the body but before she can do anything, it is engulfed in flames and shoots off into the sky like some kind of rocket with a burning, screaming face. Hard rock bursts onto the soundtrack as the word Hellbender flashes in white and red, switching between this spelling and the stylized H6llb6nd6r. Blast off.
Mother, Daughter, Shudder
The Shudder movie immediately shifts to two women suddenly jamming out, garage-rock style like it’s their own concert movie. “Heavy and quick, that’s our thing,” one says. The older guitarist has large black x’s across her eyes, while the younger drummer has painted on black teardrops. This is Izzy and the appropriately titled Mother, a mother and daughter duo in almost every sense of the word. They play quasi-metal music together and seem to only have each other as friends, living together in a secluded house in the mountains that would make Henry David Thoreau jealous.
Izzy doesn’t go to school, having been told that she is ill and can’t be around people, in both a nod to COVID and the theme of isolation. Sometimes she seems like a charming, relatively average young girl, but other times this lack of socialization and some other strange behavior creeps through the conversation. “How was your day?” Mother asks.
“I went hunting.”
“A laugh. But, it was a ghost.”
Mother obviously cares about her greatly, in a truly loving but overprotective way. “I like making you happy,” she tells Izzy. She stringently keeps her from society, especially men, and doesn’t bring her along on the few and far between trips to town. Mother doesn’t seem to work, but spends her time foraging in the woods and making strange totems. For one, she ties wooden sticks together with her own hair, fills her hands with berries and mushrooms, and then suddenly oozes a dark blood-like mixture from her mouth as if it was a spout direct to her jugular. She’s keeping something from Izzy.
Adams Family Values
Partly due to COVID restrictions, partly due to budgetary reasoning, Izzy and Mother are two of the only characters in Hellbender, and their intimacy and natural connection seem organic and deeply personal. That’s because it is — Izzy is played by Zelda Adams, and Mother is played by, well, her own mother, Toby Poser. They also produced, wrote, shot, edited, and directed the film with John Adams, Poser’s husband, and Zelda’s father. In fact, Zelda’s sister Lulu Adams plays one of the few other characters in the film (as does John Adams).
The Adams family (cue the jokes) is a unique filmmaking collaborative. Zelda has been appearing in her parents’ films since she was six but it’s their more recent horror movies where the young actor has stepped up alongside her parents to share their creative vision. With The Deeper You Dig and now Hellbender, the Adams’ have announced themselves as a new force in horror, garnering a glowing New York Times profile and a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score (as of Feb. 21) for this new film.
Their DIY aesthetic is charming and inspiring, even if one wonders what the Adams’ could do with an actual budget and were able to transcend the limitations of lo-fi filmmaking and Shudder streaming; would they stop doing everything themselves, or is that part of the process? Perhaps it’s for the best, as Hellbender oozes charm more readily than the witches‘ mouths ooze black blood, which they do quite a lot. Izzy and Mother are Hellbenders, a strange mythology the Adams’ developed which are matrilineal, monstrous, largely asexual supernatural beings that blend in rather well with society (at least when they’re in control). The problem is, Izzy doesn’t know that she is one, and Mother doesn’t want her to, but can nature be suppressed?
Nature Versus Nurture
Nature versus nurture is a strong theme in the Shudder movie Hellbender, one which is explored rather beautifully amongst the natural order of mountainous streams and forested plateaus in the Catskill Mountains, and one that’s rather ironic considering Zelda Adams’ adoption of the filmmaking her parents love so dearly. Mother keeps Izzy away from the world and refuses to disclose her true nature because nature can often be just as horrific as Hellbenders themselves. The matriphagy of the Hellbender is reflected throughout the animal kingdom, where insects and scorpions eat their own parents, in contrast to the typical infanticide of many other animals (including the actual hellbender salamander, which cannibalizes its young). “Spring eats summer,” Izzy and Mother say, “summer eats fall, fall eats winter, and winter eats spring.” Nature is deadly.
Mother tries her hardest to keep Izzy away from any knowledge of her true nature, nurturing her with kindness and overprotection, but nature has a way of shining through, and when it’s repressed, it often emerges deadlier than ever. Izzy’s curiosity develops toward the slightly rebellious act of seeking out a group of friends despite Mother’s warnings; prohibitions, after all, tend to create desire, especially parental ones. When the vegan Izzy eats the worm, her first taste of blood, in a drink of tequila, she emits a bloodcurdling scream which begins the gradual revelation of her own nature. Her inquisitiveness moves her toward discovering the secret book of Hellbenders, a kind of witches’ bible, and she yearns to understand just what she is.
The Adams’ explore all this in extremely unique and iconoclastic ways. Between the hard rock interludes, quiet character development, surprisingly gory moments, and enjoyment of the world’s natural (and scary) splendor, Hellbender indulges in myriad psychedelic, kaleidoscopic imagery. Artfully edited and shot, these trippy moments are part fever dream, part witches’ nightmare. They use expert drone shots to mimic a God’s-eye perspective, adding to the supernatural air of things, and jarringly adjust the film’s color and contrast in effective ways. They’re some of the most bonkers moments in this already delightfully weird film.
Shudder to Think
Hellbender also compliments its narrative with beautiful and haunting shots of the woods and the mountains while the score plays out sounds of dread. The film’s score is great, helping build a sense of dread as the suppressed Hellbender nature must be contended with, while the hard rock of Izzy and Mother is punky, minimalist fun. The music is created by the family as well (from their band H6llb6end6r), because of course it is: every aspect of the picture has been attended to by the Adams’ with care. This sense of everything being a direct result of the family’s handiwork gives Hellbender a very specific personality, which can sometimes be hard to find in this era of the horror boom, when every week sees the new release of a seemingly hot new film.
Shudder is partly responsible for this excess of horror, giving fans and filmmakers a platform for the endless array of new films. The streaming service has taken off as of late, thanks to a larger investment in new and original productions combined with the availability of more obscure frights. With this influx of horror, many movies are bound to remain anonymous in the sea of mediocrity, due to the vast plethora of Shudder movies, many with very low budgets and by first-time or otherwise amateur filmmakers. Make no mistake, Hellbender is a low-budget movie, with many of the same trappings that come with DIY projects; if one is looking for polished, big horror movies, Netflix has the Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot, but those kinds of projects often lack the charm and creative freedom of indie pictures like this one.
Shudder is releasing Hellbender on Feb. 24, and it’s another in a string of acclaimed, interesting films picked up by the service, including The Last Thing Mary Saw and The Seed. It may be a somewhat lo-fi and rough-around-the-edges film, but its energy and vibrancy is infectious. Its subtle feminism, intimate coming-of-age drama, gross-out horror, and hallucinogenic visuals combine to create an utterly enthusiastic film made by people who obviously love what they do. Watching the Adams’ Hellbender could make anyone want to be a part of the family.
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