Nightstream Review: Hellbender (2021)

Featured image: Zelda Adams in Hellbender. (Courtesy of Nightstream.)

Directed by John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams. Written by John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams. Starring Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, Lulu Adams. Runtime 1h 22 min. Hellbender played as part of the Nightstream Film Festival on Oct. 9.

Hellbender is one of those films that give a new meaning to a family affair, as there are three common names throughout the credits of this film. And if you’d excuse me going for low-hanging fruit, but, ahem:

They’re creepy and they’re kooky,
Mysterious and spooky,
They’re altogether ooky,
The Adams Family!

I’m definitely not the first person to do that, and surely won’t be the last. Hellbender is directed, written and featuring the core family of mother Toby Poser, daughter Zelda Adams and father John Adams – where Toby and Zelda play the two leads in the film, while John appears in a supporting role. As well, their other daughter Lulu Adams plays the supporting role of Amber and is involved in the song writing in the film, as well, for the in-band film H6llb6nd6r.

The craft here is impressive, but it’s even more-so considering that John, Toby and Zelda had a hand almost everything. That’s from Zelda and John’s cinematography and their camera and drone operation, John’s sound design and score, the entire family’s fantastic songs for the mother-daughter band, costume design by Toby… Literally, the only thing they’re not credited with is the VFX (by Trey Lindsay).

About the plot: Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a lonely teen hidden away from society, housed in the woods on a mountain with Mother (Toby Poser). She tells Izzy that she has an autoimmune disorder and can’t be around people. The only joy she gives her daughter is their band, H6llb6nd6r, a rock band where they play for themselves, decked out in make-up (also a punk band for the team in real-life). Izzy ends up wanting more than that, and as she comes across others her own age, she soon learns more about her family and her ties to witchcraft, and something much deeper than that.

One of this film’s biggest highlights is its music. Mother and Izzy are so believable as a band, and some of the visual choices to frame one song, “Armageddon,” over a small beat of Izzy starting to indulge in rebellion is a great choice. The songs peppered throughout make this such a great soundtrack. It’s a shame they only play for themselves. When Izzy wants to break out of her shell and play their music in front of others, she puts it like this: “If a band plays in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, did they really play?” The film has traits of a slow burn – as sometimes not a lot happens, but each beat is important.

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Featured image: Zelda Adams in Hellbender. (Courtesy of Nightstream.)

The film also has a great visual identity, especially in terms of showcased powers. Some sets and dreamscapes are truly great, too: One moment is something I’d love to learn what it looked like behind-the-scenes while creating it. Back to the writing, unpacking family history and psychology of Hellbenders is the most fascinating thing this film has to offer. The best screenwriting moments are dialogue about how they source their power, as well as a wolf monologue. It’s spellbinding.

The horror sequences themselves are rampant with creepiness, but nothing flashy. It’s a film that sticks with you because of its writing, and creepy atmosphere. The way this plays with creepy atmosphere and themes of good and evil is great. It’s also memorable for the performances by the mother-daughter pairing. Tobey is interesting and protective as Mother; and there’s a scene here where they show they have a strong relationship in the film and in real-life. The scene is a bit icky, and showcases their trust with each other.

There’s two key components to Zelda’s performance as Izzy, as well as her character: Before and after finding out about witchcraft. Before, the performance has the awkwardness of coming-of-age characters. That’s largely felt where she meets her neighbour Amber (Lulu Adams, Zelda’s sister, in this role), as since Izzy’s so isolated from everyone, the dialogue is believable as a very new social interaction. Zelda shines most after learning about witchcraft; both in finding out who she wants to be with these newfound powers, as well as the confidence she gains from it.

As a craft, Hellbender is just generally an impressive film. Some people can do a lot of roles on a film, but it’s impressive that the Adams family does everything so well. They’ve really fully announced their arrival with this film.

Score: 75/100

Hellbender played as part of the Nightstream Film Festival on Oct. 9.

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