Hellbender. 2021. Directed & Written by John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser.
Starring Zelda Adams & Toby Poser.
Wonder Wheel Productions
Not Rated / 96 minutes
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
I was blown away by The Deeper You Dig and made sure that whatever John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser did next I’d be waiting (im)patiently to see. Nothing about their follow-up Hellbender disappointed, in any sense of the word. Not only do the Adams-Poser trio have a distinct and unsettling filmmaking style, they’re telling stories we don’t necessarily see in horror, at least not enough. Hellbender‘s story follows a mother (Poser) and her daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) living an isolated existence at their quaint home in the forest a little ways outside of the nearest town. Mom keeps a tight grip on Izzy, until the girl starts getting too curious for her mother to handle. As Izzy starts to uncover her mother, and their family’s, secrets, she discovers her own secret power. That power, after being concealed for so many years, may now be too wild for her, or anyone, to control.
Hellbender is a unique use of witchcraft with an older witch repressing a younger one. This film explores, among other things, the ways women sometimes struggle amongst each other. The screenplay builds its own world around witchcraft, in which they’re not entirely traditional witches but hellbenders. Similar to The Deeper You Dig creating its own occult folklore with Tarot and mysticism, Hellbender likewise uses established foundations concerning witchcraft then branches out into its own innovative territory. This story is all about the power of women, and the disastrous consequences of repressing their power; it’s about one girl’s journey towards finding out the truth about her family and herself, as well as the Gothic histories that haunt them.
Historically witchcraft has had strong links to queer sexuality. Many women centuries ago were accused of being witches simply because they were lesbians, like Maud Galt. A significant aspect of the plot is that Izzy’s growing up and discovering her sexuality. She takes an interest in another local girl, Amber (Lulu Adams). She steals Amber’s hair clips in a kind of sweet gesture, though she’s later rejected. Apart from Izzy, there’s a generally queer sense of witches in Hellbender. At one point the mother mentions how hellbenders are “self–reproducing“; these witches are queered in their very existence, birthed entirely of woman without men, no need for the processes of heteronormativity. Even she recognises that “anything powerful is feared,” which is generally how female sexuality—witches or not—has been perceived by patriarchal societies throughout history.
Yet the story doesn’t involve a father, or even a non-witch, trying to repress their daughter’s powers, it’s Izzy’s own mother, a bonafide witch herself. Hellbender initially somewhat plays into mad lesbian tropes, however, it’s actually working to subvert that trope. The mother’s character and her actions—keeping important secrets from her daughter, as well as generally isolating her daughter, physically and socially—make repression, not queer nor female identity, the villainous entity driving the story’s powerful terrors. Mom, in spite of her best intentions for her daughter, is playing into patriarchal notions of witchcraft. We see the repression beginning to make Izzy feel monstrous, such as a scene when she looks at her dinner plate, seeing a bloody finger instead of one their foraged meals. The most monstrous moment is when the mother goes down into this yonic, orifice-like tunnel that’s diseased, leading her into the shadows where, eventually, she faces the monstrosity her repressive tendencies have produced in Izzy.
“Spring eats winter,
winter eats fall—”
“Fall eats summer,
summer eats spring.”
The Adams-Poser directing trio have developed a distinct visual style that’s wonderfully eerie. Hellbender is a beautiful, dark piece of work, using Gothic imagery and themes to explore Izzy’s journey of self-discovery. There’s the Gothic locked room in the house with its spectral key, inside an ancient tome that shows anyone who touches it bleak and horrific sights. There’s also the Gothic history of the hellbenders; we catch this in only brief glimpses, aside from the awesome opening sequence. A few great shots, when Izzy starts to unravel her family’s history of witchcraft through the mysterious book, include the image of a burning ship and a man in the water. From this point on, after Izzy sees the truth, she’s haunted by this Gothic history, of hellbenders and women, and it’s as if she’s carrying that collective historical weight on her shoulders.
Hellbender‘s summed up perfectly with the line, from mother to daughter: “I did what I was taught to do.” Here, mom’s really talking about repeating one generation’s traditions, and mistakes, by pushing them onto the next. The mother refers to her own mother as “a monster,” and still goes on to, effectively, turn her daughter into a monster by repressing Izzy’s inherent powers. For all the mother’s mistakes, she clearly worries about the social consequences of her daughter’s powers, it’s not simply about her wanting to repress her daughter. She has a vision at one point of Izzy turning to ash on the wind, before she starts disintegrating, too. But she worries about how Izzy’s powers will reflect on her, not entirely about the consequences for her daughter. The focal tragedy in Hellbender is that the mother knows the pain of repression, all too well, and she nevertheless manages to perpetuate it onto the one person she’s been desperately trying to protect, because more than occasionally those with the best of intentions manage to hurt us instead of help.