No, not that Addams Family. That’s Adams Family, with just one ‘d’. With their latest collaborative effort, Hellbender, debuting on Shudder, the family filmmakers return horror to the same DIY roots of early George Romero and Sam Raimi. And it’s indeed a family affair with husband-and-wife John Adams and Toby Poser sharing writing and directing credits with daughter, Zelda Adams. Both Poser and Zelda Adams also take on principal acting duties. To date, Hellbender, which represented a follow-up to the well-received The Deeper You Dig, has garnered critical praise.
In a secluded home nestled deep in the woods, teenage Izzy lives a lonely, isolated life with her mother. Her days are spent walking through the woods, swimming in the river, and playing music with her mother. But Izzy increasingly longs for a normal life with friends. When she meets another teen girl, Amber, on a chance encounter, Izzy’s contained world slowly spills open. And her mother is forced to reveal a century-old family secret. Has she been protecting the outside world from Izzy or is it the other way around?
Hellbender Makes An Old Story New Again With Innovative DIY Filmmaking
Horror has no shortage of movies about witches and witchcraft. The Witch, Suspiria, The Blair Witch Project, The Craft – we’re familiar with the narrative. But Hellbender stands out for all the right reasons. In spite of its lower budget, The Adams Family find new ways to visually tell a story we all think we know. From its opening scene, Hellbender sets its approach and tone for the movie’s trim runtime. There’s a quiet unease as townspeople hang a suspected witch high from a tree branch. Thereafter the family filmmakers effectively exploit their secluded setting to elicit consistent feelings of unease. Though there’s some gore – convincingly rendered on screen – Hellbender focuses more on atmosphere.
Most importantly, Hellbender respects its audience, largely avoding exposition in favour of patient detail.
In addition to their deft grip on mood, The Adams Family reinvigorate horror movie witch mythology with some inventive visual trickery. Throughout Hellbender, there’s a meticulous attention to details around witchcraft and spells. Most importantly, Hellbender respects its audience, largely avoiding exposition in favour of patient detail. Scenes with a door and secret key passing through ‘Mother’s’ hand are just one example of the clever approach to the subject matter. On a few occasions, Hellbender’s witchcraft can’t overcome its limited budget. More often than not, however, The Adams Family find creative ways – through editing and camera angles among other ways – to cast their spell.
Hellbender Ultimately an Affecting Coming-of-Age Tale
At its core, Hellbender is a coming-of-age story and tale about mothers and daughters wrapped in a horror narrative. In this regard, the movie’s quiet, moody tone aligns perfectly with its themes. As Izzy, Zelda Adams perfectly captures the childlike sense of innocence as she wanders alone through her mother’s wooded property. And the sense of awkwardness and wonder she conveys when finally making a friend hits an emotional note. Similarly, Izzy’s relationship with Mother, played by co-director and writer Toby Poser, adds a surprisingly sweet note early in the movie. When Hellbender pulls one curtain and reveals the early portrayals of a morally ambiguous Mother as protectiveness, it serves to make what follows even more of a blow.
Nonetheless, The Adams Family still find ways to subvert expectations.
Another strength in Hellbender is its storytelling approach. As the movie hits the middle act, the story hits some familiar beats. That is, Izzy’s discover of her heritage leads to a hunger for power and expected turn towards darkness. After all, Hellbender is a horror movie. Nonetheless, The Adams Family still find ways to subvert expectations. Specifically, it’s the flipping in roles between mother and daughter and how the movie inevitably pieces together small story morsels that drives its climax. Some viewers may find themselves frustrated with the abrupt conclusion. And to some extent, the ending leaves you hanging. Yet it also offers a perfect bookend to the story that was told throughout the movie.
Hellbender Promises More Great Things from Adams Family
Say hello to the Adams Family – the family filmmakers should have a bright future in horror. What Hellbender delivers is a genuinely unique mix of coming-of-age story, family drama, and witchcraft. There’s plenty of clever bending of traditional witch mythology. Alongside the strong emotional beats, the story twists enough just as you think you know what’s next. If some effects occasionally outreach Hellbender’s modest budget, the directors more often than not innovate their way around these limitations. And this perfectly sums up Hellbender – it’s a creepy, engaging, and fresh take on a familiar subgenre.