Sixteen-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives in a house in the woods with her mother (Toby Poser) where she is being home-schooled because she has an auto-immune disease that makes her vulnerable to infections from other people. That and the fact that both mother and child are witch-like creatures called hellbenders who live for many decades, feed off mostly moss and seed cones, and reproduce asexually like ferns. But they’re happy together, mostly: they have a mini punk band, in which Izzy plays the drums (she’s pretty good), mum plays a mean bass, and they sing songs about the apocalypse and murdering while wearing face paint. It’s not exactly clear how they afford petrol or pay for new picks and drum sticks when needed, but maybe the cash is harvested from the hikers who wander accidentally on to their land and get vaporised by the mother’s supernatural powers, as does one hapless stranger played by John Adams.

The power dynamics shift in this Rapunzel-like set-up when Izzy meets another teenage girl, a regular sort named Amber (Lulu Adams) who just happens to be the niece of a hiker mum recently dusted. Through Amber she meets some other teens, and starts to wonder if the isolation she’s been kept in all this time was strictly necessary. Eating a worm on a dare leads Izzy to realise she has supernatural powers that get stronger if she consumes another creature’s life force. Soon, she’s wanting to go into town by herself, giving up their vegetarian diet, and building a meaty tunnel in the basement, sort of like a huge vagina or a gullet, in which to eat her prey. Kids, they grow up so fast!

Although made on a tiny budget, this highly original exercise in folk horror punches well above its weight with snappy dialogue, trippy visual effects and impressive camerawork. But the most adorable thing about it is that it’s a family affair: John Adams and Toby Poser are married; Zelda and Lula Adams are their children. All of them took turns working on the crew when they weren’t in a scene, a working method the clan developed in their earlier features, Halfway to Zen and Rumblestrips. The Adams family shot this in lockdown; it’s a pretty impressive family venture given most of us barely managed to get our own kids interested in board games.

Hellbender is available on 24 February on Shudder.



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