Part witch, part demon, a hellbender preys on the fear instilled in living beings to thrive. This is the explanation that protagonist Izzy half-jokingly offers a ranger investigating a gruesome murder near her house.
The hybrid creature feeding off flesh and blood takes center stage in this film by the Adams family, presented at Fantasia International Film Festival. The self-taught filmmaking gang made up of John Adams, Toby Poser and their daughters Zelda and Lulu created their second film, following the 2019 horror The Deeper You Dig.
As Izzy, Zelda Adams carries Hellbender on her shoulders, delivering a vulnerable turn as a homeschooled girl who comes to terms with her terrifying nature.
This horror-tinged coming-of-age explores paganism and intergenerational clash through the story of two powerful women. Living with Mother (Poser) in the Catskills — the lush mountains of upstate New York where the Adams also set their first movie — Izzy can’t interact with others due to her autoimmune condition. The girl plays the drums in the two-women band she has with Mother, H6LLB6ND6R, her only pastime and creative outlet. And she slays, hinting there’s more to this softly spoken, obedient teenager than meets the eye.
Hellbender bites into the beating heart of adolescence
When Izzy starts taking an interest in her neighbor Amber (Lulu Adams), it doesn’t take long for her to discover her mommy dearest hasn’t been completely honest with her. The inexplicable, queer-coded pull she feels for Amber hides a secret bound to be revealed in all its uncontrollable force.
A lifelong vegetarian, Izzy gets a taste for blood when she sinks her teeth into a live worm. That instant uncovers a Pandora box Izzy’s mom had tried to seal for a decade, upending the two women’s lives.
In the way Izzy quickly develops a feral appetite for living creatures, Hellbender is more similar to cannibal French horror Raw than to most movies about witchcraft. Directed by this year’s Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker Julia Ducournau, Raw sees vet school fresher and vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) dared to eat meat, unleashing unpredictable consequences.
Like Raw, Hellbender springs from a reflection on motherhood as it grapples with the legacy of the women who’ve shaped the protagonist. Izzy is a hellbender, just like her mother and her grandmother before her.
But it’s the coming-of-age narrative that is the focal point in the two films. Both Izzy and Justine reluctantly embark on an identity journey that doesn’t lead them where they thought they’d end up, leaving off a bloody trail.
A play on the mother-daughter bond
Similarities aside, Hellbender is different from Ducournau’s movie in its supernatural core and a certain quality of playful humor, particularly apparent when Izzy and Mother rehearse their songs. In full makeup and festival attire, those are the liberating moments defining the tender, at times co-dependent, mother-daughter bond. This is also a testament to the prolific Adams, with Zelda and Toby performing tracks from their experimental punk project.
Yet, once rehearsals are over, Mother still keeps Izzy away from society. Most importantly, she keeps the girl in the dark about her true nature. The jarring opening sequence gives a glimpse into a hellbender’s fate should they get caught, and it’s not pretty. This explains why they don’t go on killing sprees and live in isolation. They’ve evolved, as Mother points out. But evolution has come at a cost, that of burying their true selves in their pristine house.
Often captured at an ominous Dutch angle, the immaculate house in the Catskills isn’t as polished on the inside. Like a living being itself, the house pulses and conceals these women’s most obscure legacy in the basement.
The sheep and wolf analogy
Living with others requires exceptional self-control that is hard to master: it takes a moment for the castle to crumble. Mother has no intention to be nor raise a monster, but she hasn’t taken into account the nature vs. nurture argument.
Izzy explains that through an effective, if a little on-the-nose, wolf and sheep analogy. Raised as a sheep, a wolf still has a sharp set of teeth. A threatening parable delivered in rhymes and eerie smiles that pave the way for the finale.
Without giving too much away, Hellbender is a folk study on the disruptive force of adolescence with oozing gore galore. While it’d have been interesting to see Izzy explore her sexuality alongside her other impulses, Hellbender doesn’t explicitly go there. Instead, it chooses to zero in on the delicate parting point between being primarily a daughter and becoming one’s own person. And it’s even more relevant as this is the passion project of a filmmaking family grappling with their own complex and fragile dynamics. The film puts Zelda Adams on the map and, just like with Izzy, we can’t wait to see what she’s up to once she flies the nest.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.