[FANTASIA 2021] MOVIE REVIEW: HELLBENDER is a captivating supernaturally tinged coming of age tale


Director Toby Moser and the Adams Family’s tale of a girl’s awakening to a world of witchcraft is one of the best films of the Fantasia 2021 Film Festival.

The supernatural and witchcraft, in particular, have long been used as metaphorical shorthand in horror for coming of age tales from as far back as Brian De Palma’s 1973 horror Carrie to Robbert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch. The awakening to something different and powerful works well for a coming of age tale and Hellbender is no different. It’s a story of a close pair, a mother and a daughter, whose relationship takes on an edge as the daughter blooms into an individual outside of the overly protective boundaries the mother has set.

Zelda Adams plays Izzy, a naive waifish girl whose joy comes mostly from playing drums in an experimental band called H6llb6d6r, or Hellbender, with her unnamed mother (Toby Moser). Izzy is told she suffers from an autoimmune disease and thus has been homeschooled her whole life. She and her mother live off of foraging fruit and vegetables from the land as they live out in a secluded home in the woods. It seems to be an idyllic existence for both of them. That is until one day Izzy comes across Amber (Lulu Adams) who she spies at a house with a pool in the woods. The two strike up a quick friendship and she invites Izzy to a pool party with her other friends where she starts to find out not everything her mother has told her is the truth. Things really take a turn when she swallows a worm at the end of a bottle of tequila, which seems to awaken something deep, seductive, and dark inside of her. It turns out she and her mother come from a line of hellbenders, something that seems to be a cross between a demon and a witch and that feeds on life; but while the mother has managed to control her thirst and power, it’s a different story for Izzy. As she comes into her own and gains new power, she also thrives on consuming flesh. Her mother at first encourages it, but soon, the small tastes she gets from eating bugs and small tastes of blood aren’t enough and she starts to wonder what she could unlock if she consumes human flesh.

In some ways, Hellbender is reminiscent of Julia Decournau’s 2016 film, Raw, which similarly dealt with a taste for flesh that develops as a girl comes into her own. But here it is part of a development of dark powers, not unlike The Witch or The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. As Izzy comes into her powers, the shy, amiable wallflower she was starts to disappear with shades of darkness and manipulation starting to consume her as she consumes the flesh and blood which will fuel her power. Adams gives a great performance as Izzy as the change that takes her seems to be a natural outgrowth of her situation being kept from others. Even though the relationship between her and her mother seems to be a loving one, it is one in which she is stifled. Even the opportunity to share her music with others is seen as an impossible and unconscionable action that could never be. It’s only natural that the first taste of power she gets she ends up using to rebel and be her own person.

Moser is also excellent as the Mother. The film largely rests on the shoulders of both her and Izzy and the relationship between the two grounds the film in its more supernatural moments which are largely unexplained. She is a loving figure but will kill to protect Izzy from what Izzy could become and once she starts to go down a dark path, she tries her best to use that relationship to ground her in a very naturalistic way.

The most impressive thing by far about Hellbender is its production. Moser and Adams are part of a family filmmaking collective and the film is a product of the two of them along with Zelda’s sister and father. It’s all the more amazing with how expensive and professional the film looks. The production design is top-notch and the film sports a psychedelic meets mumblegore art rock aesthetic that is unique and visually arresting. it implements drone cinematography in really cool ways to get these awesome perspective shots you could only have gotten through expensive crane shots otherwise. The film’s music is also amazing and really draws you into their world, especially with Zelda doing the vocals. It’s a punk rock coming-of-age witchcraft horror that will blow you away with its ingenuity.

Hellbender is a must-see and one of the most inventive horror films I’ve seen all year. The dynamic between Moser and Adams is authentic and heartbreaking at the same time, If you’re looking for an original horror film with a coming-of-age story at its heart, Hellbender delivers with a psychedelic edge that redefines what you think the witchcraft horror film can be. Highly recommended.