I rarely post Letterboxd reviews. Of the hundreds of movies I’ve watched since I downloaded the app, I’ve only reviewed eight. One of those movies is Hellbender, and my review simply reads: “My new religion.” The latest film from the Adams Family is an experimental wonder, opening up a unique world of folklore, witchcraft, and indie filmmaking that terrifies and inspires in equal measure. With its multimedia approach to film and its deeply elemental connection to nature, Hellbender is a truly special work of art.
Written and directed by John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughter Zelda Adams, Hellbender tells the story of Izzy (Zelda), a young woman living on an isolated mountaintop with her mother (Poser, credited only as “Mother”). Izzy grew up believing that she had to avoid people because she had a rare illness, but when she ventures out and makes a new friend — Amber, played by Zelda’s real-life sister Lulu Adams — she learns that she’s actually a Hellbender: “kind of a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator.” Izzy grows into her power with her mother’s help but refuses to heed her mother’s warnings about how dangerous that power can be, culminating in a showdown that redefines their relationship forever.
There’s so much to love about Hellbender that it’s difficult to choose a place to start. It is such a unique, cohesive vision that to pull it apart and examine its separate pieces feels like trying to unravel a spiderweb. It’s impossible to talk about the film without discussing its music, though. The Adams Family has a band called H6llb6nd6r (pronounced just like the film title); Izzy and her mother have a band with the same name, rehearsing metal- and punk-infused songs in several scenes with glam warrior face paint on. The musical interludes move the story forward just as much as any other scene, as the mother-daughter dynamic evolves along with Izzy’s newfound power and knowledge. Indeed, one of Hellbender’s most striking elements is its poetic approach to narrative. So much is left unsaid — and what is said is often spoken in beautifully cryptic, elliptical dialogue — but the viewer understands every story beat and character moment intuitively.
Intuition seems to be the guiding force in the film. The Hellbenders’ magic is born from an innate sense of the rules of nature: a sigil drawn with a feather gives a bird’s-eye view of the intended target, and crushed ivy and spiderwebs make your palms sticky so that you can climb trees like a squirrel. This is a movie that you feel; just as it draws from the deepest wells of artistic expression and elemental nature, it speaks to the deeper, hidden parts of you. I was only half-kidding when I said this film was my new religion. It combines beauty and horror, humor and grief. It turns the natural into the supernatural, and vice versa. Gorgeous woodland vistas give way to psychedelic nightmares. Impressive visual effects and terrifying sound design underline the fearsome power of the Hellbenders, while the cast’s disarming performances draw you into their unique world.
Hellbender is a film about the cyclical nature of life and the beauty of decay. It explores the idea that you must kill what gave birth to you in order to become your true self; as Izzy and her mother often say: “Winter eats fall, fall eats summer, summer eats spring, and spring eats winter.” To move forward, we must look backward. Hellbender does both, building on a legacy of folk horror and indie film to create an elemental rock ‘n’ roll meditation on nature, mother-daughter relationships, and the long and painful road to finding your true self. It is a film that gets inside you; a unique and bewitching horror story that will earn the Adams Family quite a few new converts.
Hellbender begins streaming on Shudder on February 24.