It’s time for a new kind of family band, and the Adams family (no, not that one) may be the bohemian clan of oddball creatives the world is looking for. For the last decade and change, married couple John Adams and Toby Poser have been collaborating on films that bring their entire family into the DIY moviemaking process. The first few were dramas, but over time the focus shifted to horror as youngest child Zelda, now 17, became more active both behind and in front of the camera. Zelda shares writing and directing credits with her parents on their latest film, Hellbender, which will expose the Adams family to its widest audience yet when it premieres on Shudder.
Zelda and Toby also co-star as Izzy and Mother, who live in a restored farmhouse in upstate New York that was previously seen in the Adams’ last production, ghost story The Deeper You Dig. Izzy has been “on the mountain” since the age of 5, and Mother refuses to let her come along on trips to town, telling her daughter that she has a rare immune disorder and could die if she gets too close to strange people. The two eat a foraged vegetarian diet, and spend their time making art and practicing songs for their (honestly pretty righteous) hard-rock band, H6LLB6ND6R. But Izzy is getting older, and more curious about life beyond the small patch of land she calls home.
One day, Izzy sneaks out and stumbles onto a party being held by some local teenagers, who dare her to swallow an earthworm as part of a drinking game. She does it, of course—eating a worm is nothing compared to social exile when you’re 16. But that little gesture turns out to be a very big deal. The tiny invertebrate’s life force awakens Izzy’s latent powers as a Hellbender, a commanding natural force she later describes as “a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator.” Hellbenders take the form of human women, but are immortal and reproduce asexually. They draw their occult strength from blood and fear, and exist outside the boundaries of human morality—which is why Mother has been trying to delay Izzy’s transformation as long as possible.
But now it’s here. And so Mother begins to educate Izzy in the dark power of their shared lineage. The occult elements in Hellbender are unique, an organically conceived style of folk witchcraft that’s heavy on blood, herbs, and Blair Witch-style sigils made of sticks and bark. But the film’s thematic content—a cauldron of maternal fear, adolescent frustration, creation, destruction, isolation, and troubled family histories—is in the same category as horror films like Relic that tease out the monsters lurking in mother-daughter relationships. Izzy and Mother are hardly a typical pair, however. How many moms and daughters do you know who get high on maggots and spit blood in each other’s faces as they laugh hysterically?
Hellbender’s psychedelic visuals, fiery heavy-metal digressions, and saturated, overcast color scheme all recall a ’90s music video—an impression enhanced by the hefty, doomy sound of H6LLB6ND6R’s original songs. (The band is composed of John, Toby, Zelda, and older sister Lulu Adams, who co-stars as Izzy’s townie friend, Amber.) For Hellbender, the Adams’ threadbare toolkit expands to include a Steadicam and a drone camera—both operated by Zelda, DPing alongside John—which really enhance the production value. But the film’s most valuable asset (aside from its creators, of course) is its forest setting. Rows of white birch trees and jewel-toned ferns, filmed in deep focus shots bursting with detail, create loads of visual interest.
Still, this remains an obviously low-budget production, and the dearth of resources is most evident in the sound mix and visual effects. Even as the Adams family climbs the ladder from DIY to low-budget filmmaking, the price of true independence is that the CGI isn’t as slick as in pricier projects. Then again, even expensive CGI ages badly, so who cares? Hellbender is also pretty slim, with performance scenes padding out its short runtime. But, again, would you rather have 83 potent minutes or 123 lackluster ones?
If there’s a lesson to be taken from Hellbender, it’s this: Underestimate the small and unassuming at your own peril—whether that be the character of Izzy, the film’s real-life creators, or the movie itself.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that the ending of Hellbender was changed between its festival and Shudder premieres. It was not. We regret the error.