Directors: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser (USA). Year of Release: 2022
A clearing in a forest, the sort of place where Scandinavian metal bands pose for album covers. A woman is being hanged – the period costume make you presume that it is for being a witch. Most of her body is covered with a bag, but suddenly it starts to writhe. A man takes out a pistol and discharges all its bullets into her head. As the body continues to move, a woman approaches with a knife. The suspected witch bursts into flames and soars towards the heavens.
Cut to: a female punk/metal group. Two piece, bass and drums. They’re wearing heavy face make up a la Kiss, and badly applied mascara, which leaves you happy that this will be a film with refreshingly low production values. The music, however, is uncomplicated and pretty bloody good.
Cut to: the next morning when you realise that the band members are a mother and her daughter. The mother says she’s going into town. Daughter Izzy asks if she can come too, but her mother reminds her that that’s just not possible. So Izzy asks her mother to pick up some drumsticks and some pencils for her sketching.
You can tell that the unnamed mother is cool. It’s not the band with Izzy called H6LLB6ND6R. Mom’s dark clothes and boots complement Izzy’s emo look. She has curly dark hair with strands of grey, and looks way older than most women in this sort of film (we later learn she’s 147, but we presume that actor Toby Poser is a little younger). Later, Izzy and her mother do the equivalent of taking drugs together and feel a bond not experienced by most mothers and daughters.
Izzy is not allowed to get too close to other people, ostensibly because she has an auto immune disease. She is home schooled by mom, and occasionally goes out into the woods on her own to hike. swim and sketch. She’s been put on a diet of pine cones and berries, which look inedible, but, as we shall see, if either she or mum comes into contact with anything more meaty, this comes with inherent dangers to everyone in the vicinity.
One day Izzy comes across a rambler who has lost his way. Her mother appears, first on the hilltop, one second later next to the rambler as she shoos Izzy away (which is a neat trick if you can do it). The rambler is nice enough, explaining that he is visiting his family who live nearby, and has left his car on the A-road. He knows that it’s on one of the local hills, but he can’t be quite sure which. We later hear that the rambler has gone missing, presumed eaten by passing wildlife.
Wondering off again, Izzy comes across Amber, the rambler’s niece, lazing by a swimming pool. They swim together, and Amber invites Izzy back for a party with some of her mates. This is just about the first human contact in Izzy’s life, so she takes up the offer enthusiastically. At one stage, one of Amber’s friends suggests a form of Russian Roulette using glasses of tequila and a live worm. Despite her protests of vegetarianism, Izzy gets the worm and things start to get trippy.
Suddenly, the owner of the house with the pool returns – Amber was just taking advantage of its availability. The girls run and Izzy, still disorientated by the worm, approaches Amber with malicious intent. Amber runs off, but the pool owner is less lucky. He confronts Izzy and suddenly there’s another unaccounted missing body lying in the forest.
As the film continues, Izzy and her mum start appearing in each others’ dreams, and the occult possibilities hinted at in the opening scenes show that they are not buried in a Little House on the Prairie past. Izzy is 16, and as she reaches maturity, her latent powers are obviously getting stronger. Until now, her mother has been protecting her – and everyone who comes in contact with her – but suddenly Izzy’s powers have started to surpass those of her protective mother.
There are a number of things going on here, from how much parents should control the movement of their parents to freedom of choice. If you are just “born bad”, should you try to restrain this badness or should you exercise your free will to the full? In more earnest hands, this could lead to a serious but deeply annoying film. Fortunately, Hellbender does not treat itself too seriously, so although it does address some serious issues in passing, it is more interested in enjoying itself.
This is a low budget film, but somehow it manages to thrive on its lack of resources. Whereas some films get bogged down in showing off the latest technology, this is a film that knows that it just about has the resources to tell a single story and little more. It has a tight script and competent actors and makes you ask whether other, more expensive, films are really justified in spending all that money.
Hellbender is not a spectacular film, nor does it have to be. It requires us to accept its supernatural logic, but remains true throughout to its vision of how the world can be. And it tells a story that is female-centric without us particularly noticing how few men are involved. Maybe it helps that the film is a family affair – written by, starring, scored and directed by Poser, John Adams and their two kids. It’s not particularly profound, but it’s a lot more fun than some films which try to say too much.