The occult has always had a fairly strong cinematic track record. From hits such as The Blair Witch Project to The Witch itself, there’s something especially unnerving about secret rituals, dark civilisations, and witchcraft in general. Hellbender is the latest indie horror film to take a swing, telling a story that’s equal parts witchcraft horror as it is mother-daughter family drama. The end result is undeniably endearing, but messy to its detriment.
The production of Hellbender is arguably just as interesting as the story you see unfold: a family of four comprised of two parents and two daughters form the basis of the writing, directing, and acting team. Chief of all is Zelda Adams, a daughter who plays Izzy, the conflicted adolescent kept locked inside by her mystery-harbouring mother (played by her real-life mother, Toby Poser). After an encounter with a metropolitan friend called Amber (Zelda’s sister Lulu), Izzy unearths a dark secret that lingers within her family, and a newfound thirst for blood and violence to contend with.
The plot of Hellbender is fairly safe within the witchcraft subgenre, but the script – written by Zelda, Toby, and father of the family John Adams – manages to find some new avenues to explore. The film ultimately becomes an examination of the power balance within their family, as Izzy’s mother initially holds all the cards, including the secret of her daughter’s abilities. Once Izzy learns about this, things slowly tilt as she gains more authority and carries plenty of threat herself. It’s an intriguing dynamic for sure, but one that only rears its head in the latter half of the film.
Yes, Hellbender is a slow watch despite its brisk 80-minute runtime. It takes around half an hour before Izzy first encounters Amber, and begins to see the world her mother deprives her of – in more ways than one. The film overall is quite oddly paced, with a third act that never quite knows what to do once the gloves are off and Izzy knows about her abilities. There’s a brief climax to speak of, but one that isn’t signposted whatsoever and seems to just spring up, before disappearing as quickly as it arrived. It leaves the film feeling slightly unsatisfying, as if it has plenty of ideas, but can’t conjure up a story to do them all justice.
Fortunately, there’s enough here outside of the plot to justify a watch. Zelda Adams gives a great performance as Izzy, capturing that adolescent social awkwardness alongside the unfettered naivety of someone who has barely left her family home. That develops into a sinister confidence as things proceed, as she inhibits the frustration and anger coursing through Izzy. Zelda’s is the standout performance, with sister Lulu and mother Toby hamming up the line deliveries in their respective roles. The film places most of its focus on Izzy, and that’s probably for the best.
It’s a shame, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas at the core of Hellbender. Like Hereditary before it, there’s an interrogation of mother-daughter relationships and how they’re subject to change, but this bubbles in the background more-so than Ari Aster’s bombastic debut effort. Equally, there’s some brilliant imagery scattered throughout, from harrowing rituals to tunnels made solely of flesh. Coupled with a score that often pulls out eerie strings and piano drips, and you’ve got an undeniably unsettling tone.
It’s just unfortunate that Hellbender never quite finds its feet in terms of the story and message it wants to convey. Izzy’s transformation from shy teen to witch should’ve been a lot more enriching, with more exploration than just a few brief discussions towards the film’s very end. But nonetheless it has to be admired that a family unit of four were able to pull something together that may not quite leave its mark on the subgenre, but warrants a viewing nonetheless.
Hellbender won’t revolutionise the occult horror niche, but it’s an intriguing familial spin on the concept that is arguably more interesting for its production than the final product. The ideas and concepts are all here, but ironically there isn’t enough meat on the bone to substantiate them. Though it’s still worth a watch, for Zelda Adams’ performance and the dark imagery throughout.
Hellbender releases on DVD and digital on September 5, 2022.