Fantasia 2021 – Hellbender

By Naomi Roper

Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives with her mother (Toby Poser) in a beautiful home in the mountains. They are each other’s best friends. They have a metal style band and play together while dressed in glam rock outfits and makeup. Izzy is sick, so her mother says, she cannot go near people due to her weakened immune system. But when a lost hiker approaches the lonely Izzy it leads her on a journey to his niece who lives nearby. Maybe Izzy isn’t quite as sick as her mother claims. Maybe she’s something else entirely.

Hellbender is a haunting, melancholy, coming of age tale that mixes mind fuck visuals with cottage core aesthetics to winning effect. The Adams Family (pun intended) are a talented bunch. Hellbender (the family’s follow up to The Deeper You Dig) is directed and written by John Adams, Toby Poser and Zelda Adams (father, mother, daughter respectively). All three star (John Adams is the hiker who prompts Izzy’s yearning for companionship) alongside Lulu Adams (Izzy’s sister) as Amber, Izzy’s first real friend. The music is by John Adams who also edits and he does the cinematography alongside Zelda with mum Toby as costume designer. Plus Zelda sings throughout. That is one hell of a multi-tasking, talented family.

Zelda Adams is wonderful as Izzy. Sweet, slightly awkward and nakedly vulnerable she loves her mother but just wants something more from the world outside. As she learns of her origins we see Izzy grow into her power becoming stronger and more certain. Adams successfully manages the switch from gauche naif to something terrifying without giving us tonal whiplash. She’s still Izzy but an Izzy who has become aware of her true nature. As the unnamed mother Poser overflows with love for Izzy while becoming increasingly concerned about what she is becoming (the only misstep in an otherwise excellent film is a very on the nose shot of Poser staring in worry at a wasp trapped behind a windowpane). Poser has this sort of ancient goddess quality to her (not at all a comment on her age). She exudes a sense of knowing and seeing all and she is fierce in her desire to protect her daughter from all things, including herself. Together they are a formidable acting duo.

The visuals are this fascinating mix of cottage core and a peek into the depths of hell. Izzy and her mother eat foraged food that is beautifully plated in a way that would earn them a bazillion followers on Instagram and a publishing deal. Yet when they are in touch with who they truly are the screen dissolves into a psychedelic look into madness as blood-drenched horror fills the screen. A beautiful shot shows Izzy and her mother, stoned on the life power of maggots, lying in the pure white snow making images from some sort of black essence. It’s hauntingly beautiful and deeply disturbing all at once. 

Every frame of this film drips with pure menace. Even innocuous scenes of mother and daughter being happy are infused with a sense of complete and total dread that builds until the point that you can barely breathe. 

Hellbender is a unique coming of age tale. Haunting, lyrical and melancholy this is something rather special and highlights the Adams clan as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

Hellbender played at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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2 Comments

  1. August 15, 2021 / 8:04 pm

    Toby Poser here from HELLBENDER. Thank you so much for this generous review of our film. Especially love your keen insight into the flow and undercurrents of the story. We really appreciate your covering the film and for taking the time to express your wonderful thoughts on it!

    • August 15, 2021 / 8:06 pm

      Oh goodness. Thank you so much for commenting! Can’t wait to see what your family does next!