Hellbender is the best kind of DIY effort, technically accomplished and on the verge of transcendent horror.
2019 introduced genre audiences to The Deeper You Dig, a tight little rural ghost story, and its makers: John Adams, his wife Toby Poser, and their daughter Zelda Adams. Billed, of course, as The Adams Family, this movie-loving little unit is starting to carve out a niche for themselves as creators of simple, cheap, idiosyncratic stuff buoyed mostly by sheer ingenuity and a sincere approach to horror as a conduit for their everyday self-expression. Their latest project, the appealingly janky witch story Hellbender, is no exception.
Zelda plays Izzy, a somewhat lonely goth teen in an isolated rural community who plays in a goth band with her mom (Poser), whom we also quickly learn is descended from a long line of witches. When Izzy isn’t jamming with mom, she’s out painting in the woods or sneaking around looking for a few new local pals. As her innate powers start to manifest, of course, there’s gonna be some conflict with her mother, who may or may not be aware of just how powerful her little girl might be. In front of the camera the two leads here, mother and daughter, are pretty accomplished. Zelda Adams is the epitome of a moody goth teen (interviews with the actress imply a youthful affinity for the Twilight movies, and good for her), but the very real bond between parent and child translates well to screen, and Ms. Poser seems like the picture of a cool mom.
There’s not a lot of weight to the narrative here but that’s not really important compared to the sheer technical achievement. The family all serve as writers, directors, photographers, editors, and performers. Whoever isn’t on camera is operating the camera. They even write the music (the band is a real band, naturally). That such a DIY production doesn’t seem even remotely amateurish is in and of itself remarkable, but that the Adamses don’t seem to have appropriated too many stylistic touches (say, the slow-cinema pacing, endless static takes, or Kubrick-esque zooms) that have infected so much modern horror is even more surprising. These alleged amateurs seem fully in control of their work formally. The direction is patient without being self-conscious, and that leads to a very welcome narrative economy in this small little story. Hopefully this family can continue to grow their audience; they’re on the cusp of making something relatively transcendent.
You can stream The Adams’ Family’s Hellbender on Shudder beginning on February 24.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 4.