By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser and Lulu Adams
Written and directed by Toby Poser, Zelda Adams and John Adams
HELLBENDER begins with a prologue set in the distant past, as a woman accused of witchcraft is hanged. It’s a tableau we’ve seen before, though not quite this way: The assembled crowd consists entirely of women and girls, signaling that this will not, unlike many films on this subject, be about the patriarchy. Rather, it’s the latest idiosyncratic horror indie from Wonder Wheel Productions, consisting of Toby Poser, John Adams and their daughter Zelda Adams, who previously teamed on the attention-grabbing chiller THE DEEPER YOU DIG.
A world premiere at the current Fantasia International Film Festival that Shudder picked up for streaming next year, HELLBENDER once again casts Poser and Zelda as mom and teenage child on screen, with a different dynamic than in DIG. That opening scene comes to an unexpected conclusion that transitions to Mother and Izzy rocking out together, under the band name H6LLB6ND6R. The trio of sixes is a tease as to what the film’s horror content is all about, though it upends expectations in this and other ways. The duo live in a house deep in the upstate New York woods, with mom a practitioner of spellcasting and foraging food from the surrounding forest. She homeschools Izzy and shields her from the outside world due to the girl’s autoimmune disorder, and a sign over their driveway warns, “Beware of/Well…just beware,” one of the fun bits of black humor sprinkled throughout the movie.
Anyone who does stumble upon their property risks coming to a bad end, as demonstrated by a scene incorporating a digital effect that’s truly startling–in part because you don’t expect one so good in this kind of homegrown production. Throughout, in fact, HELLBENDER has been impeccably crafted, with the family taking on most of the craft contributions: Zelda and John handled the eerily picturesque photography, John edited as well as creating the unnerving score and sound design and Poser designed the costumes. (Those impressive visual effects were the work of Trey Lindsay.) Poser and Zelda make strong impressions in their lead acting roles as well, with the former enacting wholehearted but cautious mother love and the latter playing Izzy with great wary and curious looks in her eyes.
Like any teen chafing at parental restrictions, Izzy wants to get out and see more of the world, and begins hanging out with brazen neighbor Amber (played by Zelda’s real-life sister Lulu Adams). Concurrent with her experiences in the outside world is her discovery of what she holds inside her–the same sort of occult abilities her mom has long harbored. The time has come for the latter to begin schooling Izzy in these supernatural arts, which occasions what may be the weirdest and grossest scene of mother-daughter bonding in film history. There’s also caution to be had: Mother tells Izzy, “Anything powerful is feared,” and the more Izzy learns about just what she’s capable of, the clearer it becomes that there’s good reason for that fear.
As HELLBENDER delves into increasingly dark and scary places, what gives its frights weight and meaning is the finely tuned relationship between its central parent and maturing child. Poser and the Adamses have honed considerable filmmaking skills together, and they also know just how to adapt their natural familial chemistry into supernatural, otherworldly themes. Though Shudder is certainly a great home for HELLBENDER, I’d love to see a Blu-ray release as well, with a behind-the-scenes documentary supplement revealing what kind of working relationship the trio have in real life.