Hellbender (2021) at Fantasia

Hellbender has its world première at Fantasia 2021  

Written and directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser (the aptly named ‘Adams family’), Hellbender begins with overt overkill. Caught squatting around a grisly pile of body parts, a woman (Judy Rosen) with a grotesquely sewn-up mouth is hanged in the woods by a party of other middle-aged women and some younger girls – and when her suspended body starts twitching, she is shot multiple times in the head and, still moving and groaning, is approached by a woman with a knife – and then flies screaming up into the air, her whole body burst into flames. It appears to be the late nineteenth century – roughly the same period as John Adams’ necromantic revenger The Hatred (2018) – but once Hellbender‘s title has appeared on screen (its three e’s turning into 6’s as a further index to demonic themes), the action will switch to contemporary America, and to a mother (Toby Poser) and her daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) recording a song together in their basement while dressed in Kiss-like makeup. The contrast between these two scenes is stark, although it might be noted that both feature mothers and daughters to the exclusion of anyone else. Poser’s mother wants to remain best friend, playmate and partner-in-crime with Izzy forever, even though she is herself older than she looks, while her daughter is only just coming of age. They are a joy to behold together, singing and drumming and rocking out – but there is also a tension here that comes with the sense that this relationship, in this precise form, must eventually come to an end, as folds are inevitably left and coops flown.

This is not the first time that Poser has performed as mother to a character played by her actual daughter Zelda – for in fact she did this in the Adams family’s feature debut Rumblestrips (2013), when Zelda was only 6, and again in their Halfway to Zen (2016), with Zelda in the rôle of someone transitioning from daughter to son. Yet as it quickly becomes clear that there is something witchy about Poser’s unnamed mother in Hellbender, and that she and her daughter live on their own in a house by the woods a good drive away from the nearest town,  it is hard not to think of the Adams family’s previous feature The Deeper You Dig (2019), with its similar set-up. Here, though, it is not the vindictive ghosts of the untimely dead and bodily possessions which serve as the supernatural elements driving the narrative, but rather the ‘Hellbender’ of the title – an expression which will turn out to be much more than merely the name of this two-woman band.

Loving but also protective to a fault, the mother never lets home-schooled Izzy come into town with her, keeps her on a strict vegetarian diet of whatever she can forage from the forest, and denies her contact with anyone but herself – and when a lost man (John Adams) wanders across Izzy’s path on the periphery of their property, the mother takes extreme measures to ensure that it is the last time he will ever do so. Yet like any self-respecting adolescent, Izzy yearns to break rules and transgress boundaries, and is curious about people her own age, and so she sneaks across the mountain where she meets the worldly Amber (played by Zelda’s older sister Lulu), and has her first taste of meat. From this moment, not unlike in Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), Izzy is put in touch with something dormant and dangerous within herself, and must be carefully initiated into the ways of the Hellbenders, if the mother is to keep her newly empowered daughter on the straight and narrow. 

The mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of Hellbender, which presents a new (if ancient) kind of monstrous feminine whose roots are strictly matrilineal. Yet as often, this close-knit family of filmmakers likes to play out their greatest anxieties on screen, and here it is the mother’s fear of her daughter’s emergence as an independent adult and of her own displacement and redundancy – except maybe as worm fodder. Poser’s character may dread seeing Izzy break away from her influence and go her own way, but she also knows that she once did the same to her own mother – and so this film establishes a genetic tradition of betrayal and abandonment which, while expressed through the language of genre, will prove confrontingly relatable to anyone (which is almost everyone) who has ever been part of a family. Hellbender is sweet – until it isn’t – and always smart, with hallucinatory realisations of natural magic offset by sometimes jaw-dropping moments of domestic heaven and hell. Meanwhile, the suggestion remains that a loving, creative family (like the Adams), no matter how radically its members may change through time, can still keep playing together. It rocks.

strap: The Adams family’s woodlands horror plays out a treacherous game of nature vs nurture between ageing mother and coming-of-age daughter

© Anton Bitel