FANTASTIC FEST: Hellbender (2021)

Toby Poser, John Adams, and their daughters Zelda and Lulu made The Deeper You Dig, a movie that divided Becca and me. For their follow-up, the Adams family has created a movie all about 16-year-old Izzy (Zelda), whose mother (Toby Poser) keeps isolated due to a rare illness. Yet as Izzy begins to grow as a woman — beyond playing metal songs (written by Toby and Zelda) as the band H6LLB6ND6R without an audience may not be enough — she escapes to another home in the woods where she meets Amber (Lulu), who gives her a bikini and the chance to drink with teenagers.

Yet when she consumers a live worm, the hunger of being a hellbender opens her eyes and she soon learns exactly why her mother keeps her from others.

At first, I felt like this movie was kind of like seeing an opening act at a show and not feeling the first few songs that they play. It feels inauthentic. Not metal? Silly facepaint? And then before you know it, you’re nodding your head and feeling the urge to headbang by the end of the set. This film took some time to grow on me — The Deeper You Dig had some of the same issues — but when it works, it works.

The effects either look great for the budget or remind you of the budget, yet never feel like they’re organic to the film. That’s fine — this is a very DIY effort — and it actually becomes charming. I’ve never really trusted homeschooled kids who are too close to their parents, but maybe this is one of those families that gets the dynamic right.

It’s intriguing that Hellbender has been playing Fantastic Fest with Luzifer, another film that centers on an isolated relationship between a mother and child, albeit one that’s more sacred and profane at the same time.

Hellbender has been picked up by Shudder and will be airing next year on the streaming platform. Right now, it’s played at Fantastic Fest.

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