Fantasia Festival Review: Hellbender

Year: 2021
Runtime:  83 minutes
Director: John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser
Writer: John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser
Cast: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams

By Harris Dang

“Hellbender” (2021) tells the story of Izzy (a believably pensive Zelda Adams), a young teenager who has a rare affliction that keeps her secluded in her home in the mountains with her protective mother (a great Toby Poser). Izzy spends a lot of her time drawing, hiking the mountains and participating in a rock band called “Hellbender” with her mother, which consists of her playing the drums, writing lyrics and providing the vocals.

As the ennui starts to kick in, Izzy ventures beyond her family property and encounters her neighbour Amber (an eager Lulu Adams), an outgoing, social and rebellious woman and they strike a bond, leading Izzy towards new experiences. But after an event of peer pressure involving a ritual of drinking and worms, Izzy discovers an inner thirst that needs to be quenched. But in order for that to happen, she needs to delve into her family history which bears dark, horrific secrets.

“Hellbender” is the latest project from the Adams Family, a hyphenate family filmmaking collective of four (Toby Poser, John Adams, and daughters Lulu and Zelda Adams) who are best known for indie works involving gritty crime flicks before veering into supernatural horror with their prior film “The Deeper You Dig” (2019). Here in their latest film, they have gone full-bore into horror as they explore the occult and witchcraft with loving reverence and copious amounts of blood and gore. For example, the prologue of the film hints the dark history behind the film family lore, foreshadowing the conflict of nature versus nurture in a succinct and striking way that jumpstarts the current family dynamic with shockingly abrupt violence and simmering tension.

The film also provides powerful confrontations and hypnotic dream sequences that are amazingly well-executed in terms of conception (one scene involves the setting of snow and another scene is set in darkness and revolves around a one-on-one dynamic. Both pertain to the two leads and their conflict of their best selves and their honest selves) and execution (the use of drones, costumes and sound design is well-implemented as they add an otherworldly presence to the proceedings).


But beneath all the horror is a strong human core, the family dynamic (both on and off-screen) and the journey of Izzy as she comes to terms with who she is. It is because of those ideas that makes the film take flight. The protective nurturing of Izzy’s mother toward Izzy as she tries to keep her inner being in check results in plenty of scenes of filial bonding.

The rock music they play in their band (called H6LLB6ND6R) is fantastic to listen to and sharply signals the changes in Izzy’s character arc with ease. One of the best scenes in the film involve Izzy and her mother partaking in recreational use of a peculiar food source, which leads the two to frolic in the snow in a fashion that is simultaneously wholesome, gross and laugh-out-loud funny.

The family dynamic off-screen also shines through. We see the passion, commitment and talent on display as they take on multiple roles in front of and behind the camera, bringing a project that is professionally sound, compellingly cinematic and yet endearing in its DIY home-movie feel.

A compelling coming-of-age story, a creepy occult tale and a startlingly amazing display of DIY talent, “Hellbender” is a fantastic piece of work that blends relatable pathos with filmmaking ingenuity and horror tropes into an extremely entertaining package. Highly recommended.

“Hellbender” will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.



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