REVIEW: ‘Hellbender’ (2021) Bends a Small Budget Into Unique Folk Horror

★ ★ ★ ★ 

“Bloody, sweet, and entirely original.”

Horror intrinsically has a ‘made during the pandemic’ vibe. The genre is often built on films that typically utilize a smaller budget, few characters, and one or two main locations. Budgets big or small though, when a community of filmmakers gets together, horror has the opportunity to thrive. In the case of Hellbender (2021), these thriving filmmakers are related; John Adams and his wife Toby Poser make movies with their kids Zelda and Lulu under the name Adams Family Productions, and Hellbender is their sixth film.

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a 16-year-old living with her mom (Toby Poser) on a large woodland property in the Catskills. Izzy is homeschooled due to an immune disorder, but that doesn’t stop her from foraging for her own food and playing drums in a band called H6LLB6ND6R (scored by Adams and Poser beautifully). However, Izzy wants to experience the outside world. When she befriends a local girl named Amber (Lulu Adams) and her group of friends, they ask her to eat a worm as an initiation ritual. That’s when Izzy learns that she is descended from a line of monstrous women with supernatural powers. As Izzy hones her gift, the film transforms from a bloody folk horror into an almost surrealist psychedelic horror. 

Izzy (Zelda Adams) stands in the centre of a forest in a white bra and white underwear. There is a surrealist effect created with the trees around her.
Image courtesy of Shudder

Hellbender is taut and carefully managed, with a small cast and mostly practical effects. In a similar vein to other horror movies filmed during the pandemic (Old, We Need to Do Something), the authentic relationships between the actors and the scary natural spaces  harken back to the unique and unrestrained form of pre-digital horror. While the digital effects in Hellbender are few, they’re still impressive and unique, such as a key being pulled out of someone’s hand. But the film truly thrives on its practicality; hoisting actors up into the trees, disappearing them in a puff of smoke.

Poser and Adams, unsurprisingly, work excellently together. Endearing moments, like mother and daughter dressing up in face paint for their band practice, form the world and the characters into something palpable. Their sweetness also makes their monstrosity all more scary. When Izzy’s mom drives into town, she must stop the car on the edge of their property. At least four signs warn trespassers to keep out, but the most notable one sits front and center, reading “Beware of well… just beware.” The sign says it all— words can’t articulate the horror that lies within these women. 

Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) sitting on the front steps of a house. The steps are painted light blue, and there are two chairs in the background. Izzy wears a crown, and her mother smiles looking up at her.
Image courtesy of Shudder

In a genre that is built on itself, taking tropes and concepts from other films to create something entirely new, Hellbender doesn’t feel like many other horror movies made before. Some things work, some things don’t (like the garish psychedelic effects in the last half of the movie), but the film is original in its effects, pacing, and content, though an interesting subversion of the teen-drinking-to-death trope proves that the filmmakers are seasoned slasher fans. 

Most people are aware of two definitions of a bender: something that manipulates something else (think Avatar: The Last Airbender), or a prolonged drinking spree. But there is a third definition specific to the British. A bender tent is a small makeshift shelter in the woods, built with twigs and other natural elements. Hellbender feels like the latter: a small community-oriented production propped up by creative types unafraid of nature or the elements. Adams Family Productions knows how to bend a small horror production into something bloody, sweet, and entirely original.

Dir: John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams

Prod: Toby Poser 

Cast: Zelda Adams, Lulu Adams, Toby Poser, John Adams

Release Date: 2022

Available on: Shudder