Hellbender [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

The biggest joy of film festivals is the sense of discovery. It's a real high when you sit down for movie you know virtually nothing about -- one that comes without months of breathless hype from the blogosphere -- and it blows you away. I had that feeling seeing Hellbender, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Easily one of the event's highlights this year, the picture has a hypnotic quality that entices you from the opening seconds, then doesn't let go.

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a teen girl living in a house out in the woods with her single Mother (Toby Poser). She isn't allowed to have contact with other people because of a mysterious illness she supposedly has. Mother and Izzy pass the time playing music in their punk rock band that shares its name with the film. While out walking one day, Izzy stumbles across another house. A girl about her age is swimming in the pool and invites the stranger to join her. Even though she's not supposed to have outside contact, she agrees.

That decision will bring about all kinds of unexpected repercussions, none of which I'll spell out here. Let's just say that Hellbender is a dark coming-of-age tale, with Izzy yearning to break free from the confinement she's lived under since age five. The only other thing to know is that Mother practices some sort of witchcraft, and her daughter may have a few abilities as well.

Hellbender plays slightly outside the conventional rules of horror, a trait that infuses it with a sense of dread because you truly don't know what it's going to throw at you next. Many scenes have a raw, unpolished feel, almost as if somebody is making a home movie about these characters. Others, most notably the ones where Mother has demonic hallucinations, are slickly photographed, with high-quality visual effects. That combination is sufficiently unusual to keep viewers off-balance. It adds immeasurably to the movie's impact.

Underneath the creepy stuff is an unexpectedly poignant story about loneliness, isolation, and the strong bond between a parent and her child. We know there's some kind of secret Mother is hiding from Izzy, or at least a piece of the puzzle she keeps hidden. When she reveals it in the last few minutes, it isn't what we anticipate -- and Izzy has a secret of her own anyway. The movie ends on a captivating note that makes me want a follow-up so we can see where these characters go next.

Hellbender is truly a family affair. Poser, Zelda Adams, and John Adams – an actual family unit – wrote and directed it together. In fact, if you watch the end credits, you can see that they performed almost every production task on their own. The film benefits from their shared creative vision. This unique team has made a fantastic horror movie that manages to be eerie and sincere at the same time.

Hellbender is unrated, but contains adult language and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.