In Reviews

August 20th, 2021




A few weeks ago I spoke about how the visuals alone in The Green Knight were the greatest in cinema in the past five years. That statement still holds true, but what often happens in the circles of cinema is that the movies honored for their beauty are only a small sampling of what is released within the year. What I’m getting at involves the new psychologically twisting film Hellbender, directed, written, and starring the family of Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, and John Adams. This involves a mother and her daughter, both living in an isolated home in the woods, and both bonding over playing music in their rock band Hellbender. Behind their rock and roll personas, is the fact that mother practices witchcraft, and her mysterious powers have passed on to daughter Izzy. These witching ways can’t be locked up forever and Hellbender morphs into a coming of age story of terrifying proportions.

What shouldn’t distract from the strength of the narrative, but is equally exciting is that this is a family affair. Nearly everything involved on the technical side is done by this family of three and that includes the cinematography done by John and Zelda Adams. The visuals are striking, taking place in a forest that squeezes the audience in between the trees, and takes on an entirely different visual narrative with witches spells. We first meet Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) rocking hard on the drums and playing a cool song. The meals consist of berries, twigs, and small plants, a sort of witches nutrition curated by mother. Izzy is home schooled, has no friends, and no concept of what is outside of her space, but soon the powers inside her begin to call. Try as mother might, Izzy is a teenager, becoming curious about what she sees in her sleep, curious to step outside her world, and discover her true self.

The first act sets up the lengths that mother will go to keep her daughter to herself. Casting hexes using a special book, a book that calls to Izzy, and killing a traveler that is lost in the woods. It’s after this act of violence where the second act opens up, a park ranger comes around asking if they have seen anyone wandering around the woods, he is convinced to not dig further into this family’s life, but it does spark the curiosity of what else is out there for Izzy. She wanders away from her home to a mansion that is nearby, and meets Amber (Lulu Adams), a woman a bit older than Izzy and the exact opposite of her. Not sheltered, freely living in her body, and now introducing Izzy to a world she never knew existed. It’s after this where Izzy becomes her true self, giving in to the call of the witch’s book, and more powerful than she ever could have imagined.

It would be easy to label Hellbender as an independent film, working off a shoestring budget, and revealing the true power of artistry. That all might be true, but films with that label typically do not look like this. I would place Hellbender in the best cinematography category for 2021, along with Zola, Ema, Saint Maud, and yes, The Green Knight. Blended in between the narrative beats are the visions that Izzy has, which is a mixture of bloody hands, dark forests with creatures lurking, and ominous lighting. If you’re wondering if Hellbender knows how to set the tone, it does that flawlessly.

Where Hellbender goes narratively is a bit predictable and also repeating itself too much to be perfect, but as the story has shortcomings, the visuals stay on point. It’s also just an amazing accomplishment of the family involved. Zelda Adams plays her character perfectly, revealing her acting abilities are as good as everything else she’s involved in. This is one incredibly talented family, making an independent horror movie that captures the spirit of filmmaking, while sending cold chills down our spines. Hellbender is the name of the band and this is a crew that knows how to rock the horror genre.



Written by: Leo Brady

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