In a roomy house deep in the Catskills, Izzy and her Mom live together in relative contentment. Izzy (Zelda Adams) must stick close to home, on account of a rare autoimmune disorder that makes contact with others potentially lethal. Accordingly, Mom (Toby Poser) homeschools her and does her best to make her daughter's isolation a happy one. In her free time, Izzy wanders their rambling wooded property, scratching out charcoal sketches and swimming lazily in the mountain streams. And her mom is cool: Mother and daughter have a bass-and-drum punk band, and they belt out Izzy’s gleefully morbid lyrics from under face paint that’s half Aladdin Sane and half Norwegian black metal. They’re just jamming for their own enjoyment, but it underlines their close relationship and their shared, rebellious natures.
Something is off about this cozy little family of two, however. Mother and daughter practice a strange form of extreme veganism, munching on sparse meals of dry lichens, nettles, and pinecones. Mom scurries into the woods to fashion a Blair Witch-worthy ritual object, binding it with her own hair and anointing it with her own blood. In a locked attic room with no key, Mom has enshrined a dusty grimoire, which gives her hellish, giallo-meets-doom-metal visions when she so much as touches its cover. And then there’s the film’s mysterious, 19th-century prelude, in which a group of stone-faced women gather in the forest to hang a hooded convict who simply refuses to expire. Clearly, Mom has a secret or two. Maintaining her family’s idyllic status quo requires that she shelter Izzy from some disturbing truths – and from the wider world beyond their property line.
The world has a habit of wriggling its way in, however, and even the most well-adjusted teenagers eventually become restless and resentful. Izzy’s inevitable revolt is catalyzed by her encounter with Amber (Lulu Adams), an older girl that she spies swimming at a posh vacation home, one mountain over. Amber is amused by the girl’s timid eccentricity, and before long Izzy is tasting her first beer and lounging in the sun with this newfound friend. This certainly wouldn’t sit well with Mom, who shuts down any suggestion of contact with the outside world, despite Izzy’s protests and her probing questions about her (supposed) illness. The girl has inherited something, all right, but it’s no mere genetic mutation: It’s a mystical power as dangerous as any open flame, a legacy that can be unleashed by the smallest taste of fear-soured animal flesh. Unfortunately, Izzy soon bellies up to a drinking-game dare with Amber and her friends, accepting a challenge that requires her to slurp down a tiny live earthworm with a tequila shot. It doesn’t end well.
Hellbender is the latest microbudget nightmare from the Adamses, an indefatigable family of four who write, direct, shoot, edit, score, produce, and star in their own films. For almost a decade, mother Toby Poser, father John Adams, and daughters Lulu Adams and Zelda Adams have been making tiny, fiercely independent thrillers and family dramas – mostly in their literal backyard in rural New York state. With their sleeper 2019 festival hit, The Deeper You Dig, the Adamses pivoted to horror features. It’s a move that has paid off for them, as their new film was quickly snapped up by arthouse genre seller Yellow Veil Pictures and streaming service Shudder.
Toby, John, and Zelda share a directing credit on Hellbender, which by the ultra-lo-fi standards of an Adams feature is practically a lavish production. The spare but striking visual effects might grab the viewer's attention, but everything about the Adamses’ latest feel like a refinement of The Deeper You Dig, evincing sharper craft and steadier intention. Behind the camera, John exhibits an impressive eye for lighting and composition, his images often as richly conceived and lushly executed as any art-horror feature with budgets a hundred times larger. The family’s performances are stronger in this outing, and Poser in particular feels more comfortable and confident in front of the camera. Her character’s entire emotional arc is discernible in her tense smiles and flinty grimaces – as well as the wide-eyed terror that she flashes as her dynamic with Izzy is turned on its head.
However, for all its (relative) polish, Hellbender still feels small-scale, almost claustrophobic. To be clear, this is to the feature’s advantage: The prickly, uncanny power of the Adamses’ latest stems in part from the sensation that the viewer is covertly witnessing some dark and secret tale. One feels like a trespasser in Izzy’s home, watching from behind her closet door as an unholy and gruesome tragedy unfolds. This discomfiting psychological intimacy points to the story’s affinity with familiar American literary horror idioms, including those of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and Shirley Jackson. However, the filmmakers pointedly translate this vernacular into a cinematic language that is raw-boned, idiosyncratic, and occasionally inelegant. There is no gothic stateliness to Hellbender: It’s blood magic and psychedelic freakouts all the way down.
Critics who engage with microbudget cinema often feel obligated to grade on a curve. Filmmakers working at such a scale are doing their best they can with the resources they have at their disposal, or so the assumption goes. Accordingly, it feels a little disdainful to grouse excessively about amateurish acting, substandard sound, or chintzy production design when the whole movie was made for less than the price of a used Honda Fit. With Hellbender, however, the Adamses’ work is strong enough overall to withstand a frank examination of the film’s failings. The performances by everyone other than the Adamses themselves range from stiff to terrible. The writing is often a little clunky and occasionally just plain dreadful. (Although it is also unexpectedly poetic, especially when it comes to Poser's dialogue.) There are eccentric formal choices that clash harshly with the feature’s tone and style, particularly with respect to editing and camera movement. A filmgoer who settles in with Hellbender expecting glossy, precision-molded studio horror – or even classy, artisanal indie horror – will be sorely disappointed. This is true indie DIY filmmaking, with the grungy texture that label implies.
However, Hellbender gets its talons into the viewer not despite its rough edges, but because of them. It’s scruffy and weird, the aesthetic opposite of the tasteful and the focus tested. Its unruliness is why it works: This is a primal-punk fever dream about the terrifying, implacable cycle of life and death. Like many filmmakers with one foot in the old and one in the new, the Adamses are absorbed with how mythic archetypes – the vengeful ghost, the cunning crone, the devouring demon – might manifest in a contemporary context. It’s not exactly magical realism, however: Hellbender laces its Allegheny homebrew with nightshade and psilocybin, metamorphosing a seemingly grounded tale of mother-daughter tension into the stuff of fireside folk horror. As in The Deeper You Dig, there are a few startling, hallucinatory swerves, including a set piece that can only be described as a descent into the literal bowels of the family’s house.
The Adamses are the inheritors of a worthy DIY indie horror legacy, one that includes such stone-cold masterworks as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In 2022, there are not many filmmakers who stand wholly outside the genre’s usual production pipelines, telling the stories they want to tell in the way they want to tell them. For this alone, the family is worthy of notice. However, Hellbender signals a heartening maturation of the Adamses’ technique and self-assurance as filmmakers. One is irresistibly drawn to imagine how their next inspired nightmare might turn out with an Ari Aster- or Jordan Peele-sized budget. Then again, one is also hesitant to disrupt whatever primeval and intimate spell the Adamses are working in their backyard, given the originality and potency of the results.
Hellbender will be available to stream from Shudder on Feb. 24.