Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Hellbender

A mother-daughter bond is put to the test in this excellent, effective horror.

Synopsis: A lonely teen discovers her family’s ties to witchcraft.

Mother (Toby Poser) and her daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) have a deep connection, strengthened by the fact that they spend almost every waking moment together. Izzy has an illness that means her mother has moved them to an isolated cabin for her safety. To pass the time, they play in a band together, crafting songs that provide a noisy outlet in their otherwise quiet lives.

Zelda Adams and Toby Poser provide the film with a security that allows for the aural and visual experimentation. Without their easy chemistry and likeability, there is a risk that some early scene-setting and later establishing pieces could run long. Poser in particular has the kind of dialogue that could so easily suffer through poor delivery, but her command of every word is just so engaging it becomes impossible to disbelieve any of it. As Izzy starts to question her life, Zelda Adams’ performance moves from her initial uncertainty of herself, moving awkwardly at times, into a far more confident, self-assured embodiment of a young woman on the edge of a profound discovery.

After an explosive opening scene, the film takes its time to build again, dropping the viewer into the pair’s world, moving at their own pace, consumed with their own interests. This feels so much like a film in which the creators are fully in control, likely due to the fact that the production is, by large, the efforts of one (incredibly talented) family. Shots within the woodland are so textured, showcasing a depth and hidden possibilities, in contrast to the stark, sleekness of the poolside hangouts with neighbour Amber (Lulu Adams). Cutaways to various curios in each section build a tactile profile of the spaces. The wooded location around their home does suggest a sense of freedom, despite their seclusion from the wider world, but seemingly invisible boundaries constrain them. At the outset, Izzy is frequently framed between trees, the trunks becoming prison-like bars that she cannot escape from.

The musical interludes work well, given time to breathe and the music is allowed to carry on through the film, again adding to the immersive power. Some sections feel a little like a conduit for featuring as much witchy imagery as possible, but every element is so well realised that the patchwork effect ends up drawing you further in, instead of pushing you away. The time afforded to rituals and their initial playfulness assists in the film’s later shift to something much darker. The theme of so many films recently appears to be a return to the earth, delving deeper into nature and Hellbender takes up the mantle to incredibly uncomfortable effect in the latter stages.

Hellbender is an impressive, often grisly take on the coming-of-age tale with a focus on the development and handling of female power.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Hellbender had its World Premiere at Fantasia 2021 with a repeat virtual screening on 16th August.

Hellbender screens with A Tale Best Forgotten which I reviewed as part of the North Bend Film Festival.

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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