Hellbender is relentless and weird and exactly what this era where even indie horror has an air of sophistication, a time where even horror made without a major studio lacks the grit and grime the genre enjoyed in the heyday of the 70s and 80s, Hellbender feels like a breath of fresh air. While still crisp, Hellbender has a DIY aura that feels so very rare these days. There’s a sparseness, and intimacy to Hellbender, one that adds to the DIY aesthetic that makes the movie stand out so much compared to its indie horror compatriots from the likes of A24. In the best way possible, it feels like a student film, like the kind of thing I could have had a shot at making in high school film class, had I had access to fake blood and a higher degree of creativity than I had ever come close to having back then.
In Hellbender, isolated teenager Izzy (Zelda Williams) has spent her entire life in isolation aside from her mother. The two live mostly alone, with only the mother (Toby Poser) interacting with outsiders while Izzy stays home due to what her mother tells her is an autoimmune disease. Hellbender is as much about mother-daughter relationships, the lies mothers tell their daughters to protect them, and how daughters inevitably test their freedom as it is about witchy monsters named Hellbenders who gain their power from consuming the life force of other creatures. Throughout the film, Izzy experiences what is a sort of bread and butter to horror, the idea of puberty from hell.
The idea of a coming-of-age story that takes puberty and turns it into monsterhood is not new; even werewolves have done it several times, nor is the idea of the monstrous feminine, of the female villain and of femininity made monstrous. Hellbender carries with it aspects of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, a film where monstrous nature is discovered through the breaking of rules, in both cases involving a lifelong vegetarian consuming meat for the first time and discovering a monstrous nature that escalates over time. The key difference though lies in the fact that Raw, while brilliant and one of the most impactful movies I saw as a teenager, lacks the DIY aesthetic and ethos of Hellbender. That ethos is, at least to me, one of the most important things the film brings to the table. Hellbender feels like a movie from when anyone could make a movie, the kind of thing that I personally had thought was lost a long time ago, maybe even before I was even born. It feels like something new and exciting, like the herald of more to come. And God, I hope more comes.
Aside from the DIY aspect, Hellbender also has a killer soundtrack provided by Zelda Adams and Toby Poser, whose characters in-universe form a band named H6llb6nd6r, who, as Izzy says, are “pretty good.” They are, in fact, great. Providing a soundtrack that underscores both the softer mother-daughter moments and the harsher moments Izzy experiences as she grows into her newfound abilities. It’s one of the ways in which Hellbender simultaneously sets itself apart and keeps the film a family affair, and it pays off, allowing the Adams family to maintain control over their vision and the project that results from it.
Hellbender is a breath of fresh air, a film that takes a densely populated corner of film and makes it its own, it’s the kind of movie that may not be allowed to exist if not for the way that Shudder has begun to foster independent and bizarre horror films because they understand that more than most, horror fans want to see something new and fresh and weird. Something with mounds of flesh and heaps of gore, with teeth it refuses not to bear, claws it refuses to dull, and edges it refuses to soften for marketability. Hellbender and its makers are happy to fill that space, and we are all the better for it.
Hellbender is streaming on Shudder starting on February 24th.