Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Lulu Adams) live in a remote forest some distance from the nearest town. Izzy is home-schooled and, for fun, they play in a band together ““ Hellbender. Her mother is over-protective, not letting Izzy go to town or school or have any friends. So Izzy spends her days hiking and exploring the large acreage of their property, while her mother runs to town for supplies, forages in the woods– and practices witchcraft.
Somewhat predictably, Izzy is lonely and desperate for friends. But a chance meeting with neighbour Amber (Lulu Adams) makes her realise what she’s missing out on and she is thrilled to be invited to a pool party. But an incident at the party awakens something in Izzy that she does not understand.
Hellbender is a modest, but decently effective horror-movie-meets-coming-of-age tale. The remote woodland setting and theme of ancient witchcraft set Hellbender firmly down on the mossy, bracken-lined middle ground between The Blair Witch Project and the civilisation-shunning survivalism of Leave No Trace or Into the Forest.
Izzy’s mother is known only as ‘mother’ in the credits – an odd choice since she is the only unnamed character. Her best intentions to protect her daughter end up smothering Izzy. And thus Izzy’s search for independence is the inevitable consequence of suffocating over parenting. So there are base similarities to be drawn with the intense parent/offspring relationships of The Act and, perhaps, Carrie. Although Hellbender never bubbles over into those extremes, preferring to keep a lid on its simmering central relationship, since Izzy and her mother never lose their affection for one another.
Hellbender does falter in the later stages as we find there was more enjoyment in the ambiguity of its strong opening, and once it starts to reveal its secrets things start to feel a bit insubstantial. The film also needs a bit of timeline clarity when the story leaps ahead several months. But Hellbender succeeds in presenting witchcraft as a power rather than malevolence. It also leaps headlong into a feral arts-and-crafts aesthetic, as Izzy and her mother construct weirdly intricate sigils and totems out of sticks and hair and blood.
There are also some nice visuals and sound design at work. Characters experience the effects of an ancient book of spells in a surreal blast of near-subliminal imagery, as haggard, tortured faces and torn flesh blast from the abyss. At other times the electronic soundscapes and brief, psychedelic interludes channel some Beyond the Black Rainbow energy to conjure up a stylistic and disparate weirdness.
Hellbender is a small horror movie with high aims; short on run time, but big on ambition. It has its own take on witchcraft and will likely unsettle, rather than outright terrify its audience. But it gets enough right to be worth investigating for those into lo-fi indie horror.
‘Hellbender’ is streaming on Shudder.