Horror Fave: Hellbender (SPOILERS!!)

What’s the horror: witches

Does the dog die? There are some dead forest animals; mostly we see the bones and that’s it

Gore factor: Medium – there’s lots of blood in this one, but not as much actual gore

Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. This is a new film but I’ve already watched it many times.

First, let’s talk about the filmmakers here: The Adams Family (with one D, not two, so no nostalgic TV connection there) consists of mom, dad, and two daughters, who do all of the acting, writing, producing, directing, etc. among them. Sure, they call in resources when needed, but for the most part, this is some seriously all-in-the-family indie shit. And for the tiny budgets they work with, the two movies I’ve seen from them (they’ve made more but they are hard to find) are quite good. I much prefer their latest, Hellbender, to their previous offering, The Deeper You Dig, just because it has a more cohesive story, better pacing, and a more satisfying ending, but TDYD is also a pretty unique and creative horror film.

The Adams Family is led by actors Toby Poser and John Adams. Adams was a male model back in the 90s, and Poser was a “bad girl” on the soap opera Guiding Light. In other words, even in their fifties, these are quite beautiful people. Poser in particular is captivating on-screen, at least in my opinion – we are the same age, and she appears in her films with almost no makeup, a fair amount of wrinkles, and zero plastic surgery. She’s also a woman of normal size, although a look back at her time on GL reveals she was as slim in the 90s as I was, back when it took zero effort to stay thin. And her hair is amazing.

Toby in her soap opera days, 1995

Poser in 2019

Poser and daughter Zelda Adams in Hellbender

While John Adams played lead opposite Toby Poser in TDYD, here he is mostly off-screen, only appearing in one short scene – this is primarily Toby and Zelda’s show, with some of older sister Lulu Adams worked in for good measure.

Lulu Adams

John Adams

The story involves Poser as the mother, who never gets a name in spite of her leading role, and daughter Zelda as Izzy – true to form for this family, Zelda has quite the modeling career going as well as her writing, producing, and acting gigs. She’s signed with Elite models, which is about as, well, elite as you can get.

Zelda Adams

She’s quite good in this film, and I won’t do that thing where social media shits on her for having an in-road into Hollywood because of her parents’ relative success – I get where other actors may be overlooked because someone else has a famous last name, but it also makes a lot of sense to me that acting talent can run in families, somehow, so if the actor or actress in question is good at what they do, I’m not bothered. Everyone who’s never acted thinks it would be so easy, but being a good actor takes a certain amount of instinct not everyone has, and in my opinion, talent is talent. And Zelda Adams has it. Not to mention working with her family on a micro-budget and helping them do everything themselves.

So here’s the deal: Mom and Izzy live an isolated life in the mountains of- somewhere? – the setting isn’t stated that I can recall. Things are a little odd from the jump – Izzy is homeschooled and has some unnamed illness that requires her to remain in isolation from others, only able to socialize with Mom. To make up for that, Mom plays bass in their two-woman band, called, appropriately enough, “H6LLB6ND6R,” while Izzy plays drums. They really camp it up when they practice in their basement – donning theatrical Bowie-style makeup and performing on a makeshift stage. Hellbender’s music accompanies the film, and while it’s all rather slow and moody and not particularly complicated skill-wise, the duo can flip from a whisper to a scream on a dime, and the melodies are intriguing.

There’s an odd strain between mother and daughter in the beginning of the film – a restraint that feels like it’s about to break loose. This is ultimately a coming-of-age story; Izzie is chafing against the restrictions of her supposed illness, and it’s clear Mother is aware of this and concerned about how much longer she can keep her daughter under her thumb. Not for lack of trying though; the opening scene of Mom leaving Izzy home alone to drive into town is chock full of “keep out” imagery:

Also, Mom has a sweet car

It’s clear, however, that Mom loves Izzy deeply, and that Izzy reciprocates that love.But band practice with Mom in the basement is starting to feel a bit pointless to Izzy; she suggests that perhaps they should start to branch out a bit and play live at parties or in town. Mom is 100% against this idea, though; reminding her that it’s too dangerous for Izzy to socialize with others. You may start to wonder at this point whether or not Izzy would be in better health if Mom fed her something besides platefuls of twigs and forest berries.

Finger not included, until later that is

It’s no surprise that Izzy starts wandering farther out from their isolated home, and eventually stumbles across the other humans who are off-limits to her; a lost uncle visiting family nearby encounters her while lost in the forest, and when Mom finds out Izzy’s come in contact with someone who could harm her, she takes care of it in a decidedly not-normal fashion.

So long, Mr. Uncle; we barely knew ya

Once Mom poofs said uncle into nonexistence we’re clear on where the weirdness in their relationship comes from; Mom’s clearly some sort of witch with magical powers of the destructive kind, and daughter Izzy has no idea. In other words, Mom’s got secrets, y’all. And as Izzy wanders farther into the physical and symbolic forest with restless teenaged curiosity, the tighter Mom wants to hold onto her.

Enter Amber, whom Izzy meets when she accidentally ventures into her backyard. Amber is likeable and friendly, seemingly unphased at the appearance of a random stranger on her parent’s property – which we’ll eventually learn is because it’s not her parent’s property but a vacation home she’s ‘borrowing’ while whoever owns it is away – and invites her over for a swim and a beer. Izzy, we learn, doesn’t even own a bathing suit, so Amber promises to bring her one the next time she visits. At this, Izzy beams, clearly pleased to have made a friend, and the next day she sneaks away for another visit, which doesn’t pan out as well as she’d hoped.

This time, Amber has friends over, and after they ooh and ahh over Izzy’s musical skills, they settle down for some serious drinking. It’s pretty clear booze is new to Izzy, but she’s game to eat the tequila worm, which causes her to stare woozily into the distance as if she’s going to be sick – which would be understandable really – until she lets loose with a guttural, otherworldly howl. The other kids burst out laughing, and right then the owner of the summer house comes bursting through the fence, screaming at the kids to get the hell off his property. Off everyone goes into the forest, including Izzy, but she’s clearly under the influence of the alcohol, or the worm, or something, because she’s still acting stoned as hell and unable to speak. Unfortunately, their great escape ends with Izzy attempting to strangle poor Amber, who pushes her away and darts of deeper into the forest, understandably telling Izzy to stay away from her, so, end of friendship, I guess? Which is a bummer, because she seemed like a genuinely nice person and it was nice for Izzy to get a moment or two of bonding with someone other than Mom, but whatever is wrong with her has gotten in the way – and by now she’s figured out that what is wrong with her is not some illness that makes her susceptible to germs or whatever.

A confrontation with Mom is inevitable at this point, and when Izzy returns home Mom is waiting. She knows something’s up, and when Izzy asks her what exactly they are Mom spills the beans (or twigs I guess): they’re witches, from a long line of women who practice a very dark magic indeed: in fact, they are able to reproduce asexually, eliminating all need for male participation, and they draw their power, quite literally, from eating living things. Hence Izzy’s reaction to the tequila worm.

Mom’s kept all this from Izzy to protect her, or so she says – their power is dark and ugly, she says, and it is feared in the outside world. She believes there’s no way for Hellbenders to survive in the modern world unless they hide their power, and the only way Mom sees to keep their evil tendencies under control is to isolate. It’s clear she’s not just talking about keeping Izzy away from her own nature, here, but also herself. She’s done things in her past that agonize her, but as she tells Izzy, she did what she was taught to do. Until she reached a point of believing that what she, and all Hellbenders, were doing was wrong. Drawing power from death and destruction can only lead to one’s own D&D, in the end – at least, that’s how Mom sees it. Izzy, totally new to the idea of her own power, sees things differently. But we got a glimpse of the Hellbender in action when Mom disintegrated Sad Uncle in the first act, so we know where embracing their Hellbenders can take them.

The true face of a Hellbender

At this point, the movie becomes a bit predictable, but it’s still fun to watch. Izzy wants to know more about her powers, and Mom sets out to teach her now that the cat’s out of the bag. But she does so with hesitation; she doesn’t want Izzy’s newfound knowledge to overly influence her or change her – which is exactly what happens. Due to Mom’s deception, no matter how well-intentioned it may have been, Izzy has already destroyed the one normal friendship she’d managed to make – Amber has made it very clear that she wants nothing more to do with her, but to Izzy, the connection they made is far too important to discard. She’s never had a friend other than Mom, and it turns out Mom’s been less than forthcoming with her. It’s coming of age run amok, and Izzy lashes out at the people around her whom she sees as her betrayers – her mother, for lying to her all those years, and Amber for rejecting her friendship and refusing to give her a second chance. Mom has tried to explain to Izzy that their powers can do no good in the world and that it’s their responsibility to suppress them, but she’s coming from a place of experience in the witchy world where she was able to make that choice. Izzy has just discovered her own power at a crucial time in her development, and the reality is that her peers are always going to treat her like an outcast, like a freak – something every teenager fears, something that seems even far more likely for Izzy – and the bond she shared with her mother was based on a lie.

It doesn’t take long for Izzy to push beyond Mom’s boundaries around their history – she easily gains access to Mom’s secret sanctum and learns more about her heritage. She starts off on a discovery journey of her own, practicing the darker magic Mom is desperate for her to avoid. And when one last attempt at friendship with Amber falls flat, she takes revenge – against both Amber and her mother. All of Mom’s secrets have been spilled, and Izzy uses them against those she sees as causing her pain.

Sorry, Amber


Ultimately, Izzy spares her mother from Amber’s fate – so long Amber, we barely knew ya – but it’s clear the power has shifted. Mom is scared of Izzy now, and Izzy knows it. The final moments of the film reverse the dynamic of the first act, with Izzy telling Mom she’s going into town, while Mom is forced to stay where she is.

There are intimations throughout the unspooling of the Hellbender mythology (to which we’re given only glimpses) that these centuries of asexual reproduction include an element of violence on behalf of children against their mothers; the mother who gives the child life must eventually sacrifice her life – literally – to the daughter, who is compelled to eliminate her. I’m guessing at this because none of it is explained clearly, which I think is best. To overly explain the mystery of this world our protagonist is just beginning to explore would be incongruous with what’s happening at this moment. Izzy doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about the darker side of her family history which might give her pause; she’s actively rejecting the perspective of her mother during this process, so it makes sense that what we learn is barely enough to grasp also. We’re only shown what Izzy wants to focus on, which is a power that’s been denied her for 16 years. At the movie’s end, Izzy’s path forward is unclear, but she’s already killed one person within weeks of learning about what she’s capable of, so it doesn’t look good for anyone. Perhaps she will eventually draw the same conclusion as her mother, who has made it clear to Izzy that she regrets her past acts of violence, but it’s also clear, based on how things turned out for Mom, that fully denying her power is a losing proposition also. We know Izzy’s fated to reproduce and grapple with a daughter of her own and how who that girl becomes determines her own future. Izzy may be feeling her witchy oats at the moment, but moving forward is going to be complicated.

3 thoughts on “Horror Fave: Hellbender (SPOILERS!!)

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