‘Hellbender’ Review: The Family That Preys Together

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In the last two years, The Adams family — Toby Poser, her husband, John Adams, and their daughters, Zelda and Lulu — began producing lo-fi rock under the band name H6LLB6ND6R and made “Hellbender,” their sixth feature film together. Poser, Zelda and John co-wrote and co-directed the film, and all the family members had acting roles. The music project inspired the movie project, an act of true collaboration that saw Poser, Zelda and John trading places in front of and behind the camera to execute their vision. Many scenes were devised ad hoc, as inspiration struck. While the result is a mostly-compelling tale of matriarchal megalomania, occasionally this group composition feels more like a jumble.

In the film, a mother (Poser) with mysterious, witchy powers keeps her daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) isolated on their rural property by telling her she is immunocompromised. As Izzy comes of age and befriends a local teenager (Lulu Adams), she discovers she stems from a lineage of Hellbenders, supernatural women who asexually reproduce and draw their magic from the blood of living creatures.

That initial premise is familiar in horror, but “Hellbender” takes a fresh approach. Some keen editing by John Adams and special effects by Trey Lindsay elevate this into formidable genre fare, with psychedelic sequences that are remarkably polished. If you thought a no-budget film couldn’t feature pirates, flying witches and underground lairs, think again.

Yet the film’s spooky focus is often waylaid by detours. H6LLB6ND6R appears not only on the soundtrack, but also as an actual band in the script, yielding tonally discordant sequences that feel like music video breaks. It’s certainly possible to make an amazing horror film about insatiable monster-women with some irreverence — Julia Ducournau did it with “Raw” — but “Hellbender” isn’t focused enough to nail it.

Hellbender
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. Watch on Shudder.

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