By: Emily von Seele
Hellbender was definitely one of my favorite films of this year’s Fantasia Fest. I’m on board for all things witchy, and this film brought a story steeped in folk horror, feminism, and human relationships.
Hellbender is the latest film from Toby Poser, John Adams, and Zelda Adams — the team that brought us the haunting The Deeper You Dig in 2019. And like their previous film, Hellbender combines an interesting narrative with some compelling emotional beats and a very unique visual eye.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives alone on a mountain with her mother (Toby Poser). The pair are largely self-sufficient, keeping to themselves and having little contact with the outside world. They forage food from the forest, take hikes, and practice songs as a two person rock band (they are freaking good, too). Her mother has raised Izzy to believe that she must be kept separate from the outside world because she was born with a weak immune system and being around people would be too dangerous for her.
But, like any young woman, Izzy becomes curious about the world outside the familiar space that she has always known. She wants to see what is beyond the perimeter of their land and meet the people of the greater world. As her curiosity pushes her further and further away from home, her mother must come clean about the real reason they shun society: they come from a long line of powerful witches known as Hellbenders.
As she introduces Izzy to her true nature, she also begins to teach her about her powers and how to focus and use them. Izzy learns where her power comes from and, if harnessed properly, what it can do. The incorporation of knowledge and power being passed from mother to daughter and between generations is a beautiful element in this story. It’s an ages old tradition that lends itself well to a story focusing on witchcraft and the holding and management of feminine power.
There are so many fascinating aspects about the film and the world that it builds. The mythos surrounding the Hellbenders themselves is particularly rich, and seems to pull from nature-based witchcraft as well as more mythological-based storytelling. The way that the mother-daughter relationship figures into both the story and the mythology at play is masterful. At its core, Hellbender is a story about a mother-daughter relationship and the way it begins to strain as Izzy approaches adulthood. She longs for independence and though her mother guides her with an open and steady hand, Izzy wants to figure things out for herself. Naturally, this puts her at odds with her mother’s teachings.
The visuals that the team employs throughout the film are highly effective, as well as being a creative method for showcasing the nature of the magic at play. A lot of what we see onscreen is told visually, through colors and images, and might be bolstered at some point in dialogue. But the team is not afraid of letting the visual language take center stage when the scene calls for it.
Hellbender is a multifaceted film that will definitely speak to fans of folk horror. There is a lot to digest in terms of the characters’ relationship and how they evolve, feminine power, the nature of self, and how we relate to the world around us. Team Adams once again delivers a horror story with real meaning and lasting power.