Review by Dan Skip Allen
Shudder has had a nice niche in the horror genre over the past decade. They've paved a path all their own in a genre but can be a bit hit-or-miss. During the horror renaissance of the last ten years, Shudder has popped up with many original films, some going to theaters and some directly to their streaming service. Hellbender is another one of their original films.
More than other genres, the horror genre has spawned new original voices such as James Wan, Air Aster, Robert Eggers, and the like. John and Zelda Adams are two new filmmakers who have created a unique vision of horror that is different from other horror films. They fall back on a few horror tropes, but the end product is distinctly different with less of a seasoned approach than the other filmmakers I've mentioned.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives in a remote wooded area with her mother (Toby Poser). She is homeschooled and secluded away from other teens her age. While out exploring in the woods, she comes across a girl, Amber (Lulu Adams), sunbathing around a pool at a house. They become friends. This opens up new possibilities for this young girl who doesn't know anything outside her life, living with her mother, playing music in their band known as Hellbender (the title of the film), and eating strange things from the woods.
The Adams family, not to be confused with the television family of the same name, creates a new vision that might have been touched on before but not in this way. It would be categorized as folk horror, gaining prominence lately but has been around forever. They focus on the visuals but lack overall acting ability. The two leads lack the experience to be seasoned veterans, and the same goes for the rest of the cast. The filmmakers lack the knowledge to get believable performances out of themselves, which doesn't translate to a very good film.
The visual style is an intriguing one by these new filmmakers. The scenery is lush and vibrant, but the story, set up at the beginning of the film, lacks originality. Films about witchcraft have been done before with much better results. These filmmakers should have spent their budget more wisely in acting classes. These performances are so wooden they pretty much take you out of the film. The story isn't enough to get past these bad performances.
The film's title has multiple meanings as well. Besides the band's name, it is also a term used to describe very special witches. Hellbenders live for a very long time, and the traits of one are passed down to another. In this case, mother to daughter. Zelda Adams takes this trope to the next level in the film. Had better actors been cast as this young woman, maybe it would be more believable.
It's too bad that Hellbender had such bad performances by the entire cast. The film's visual style is a solid core that isn't built around well. I would have liked to see more of the film's subplots explored as well. This film is a mess, almost to the point of being laughable.
Hellbender streams on Shudder beginning February 24.