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Growing Pains: "Hellbender" (2022) Review

Chill Clinton obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies in 2016 and has since worked as a professional writer.

Zelda Adams portrays an isolated teenager who learns there may be a good reason why she and her mother stay far away from the world.

Zelda Adams portrays an isolated teenager who learns there may be a good reason why she and her mother stay far away from the world.

A Bizarre Coming of Age Tale

If you thought your teenage years were tough, at least you didn't grow up woefully unaware that you are a semi-immortal, bloodthirsty witch.

This might be the point where you assume one of the latest films to strike a distribution deal with horror streaming app Shudder is played for laughs a la Teen Witch (1989) or Halloweentown (1998).

But despite many bizarre moments of levity throughout, there is nothing about Hellbender that reassures viewers that the changes and revelations brought on by adulthood are anything but horrifying.

A Spoiler-free Synopsis

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a teenager who lives with her mother (Toby Poser) in a remote woodland home, surrounded by miles of unspoiled mountain landscapes.

But Izzy isn't like most girls her age. According to her mother, she suffers from a debilitating auto-immune disorder that prevents her from coming into contact with anyone but her mom. She has no friends, doesn't attend school, and protects her health with a strict vegetarian diet.

One day, while drawing by a creek, she encounters a man who strikes up a conversation with her, and tells her that his niece lives in the area as well. Eventually her mother comes upon them, and commands Izzy to leave. You can imagine things don't pan out for the unfortunate hiker.

Curious about finding the supposed niece, Izzy ventures out further from home and eventually finds Amber, played by the actress' actual sister, Lulu Adams. Though hesitant, Izzy strikes a short-lived friendship with Amber that eventually ends when, at a party, the girl's friend makes Izzy shoot a cup of tequila with a worm at the bottom.

Inexplicably, eating this worm causes Izzy to go into a fugue state where she screams at and attacks Amber. This leads Izzy to discover, from he mom, that she comes from a long legacy of Hellbenders: a type of animalistic witch that derives power from consuming the blood and flesh of living things. If they eat simple lifeforms like worms and grubs, they get a little weird and aggressive. But with just a few drops of human blood, Hellbenders can literally disintegrate people with just their minds.

After discovering this, Izzy tries to learn more about the abilities she has, and rituals associated with her people. But will Izzy be able to stop herself from reclaiming the agency her mother has robbed her of over the course of her life?

Izzy and her mom share a complex relationship that spans nearly every conceivable parent-child dynamic in this film's lightning-fast runtime.

Izzy and her mom share a complex relationship that spans nearly every conceivable parent-child dynamic in this film's lightning-fast runtime.

A False Sense of Hope

In my opinion, many great horror films have this uncanny ability of reassuring viewers that the events unfolding before them aren't quite as weird and off-putting as they really are.

As the film begins, we are meant to fear and distrust the mother character, who hides behind a cold and uncaring demeanor- possibly a defense against a world she knows would persecute her and her child if they ever discovered the truth of what they are.

But we quickly come to understand that the mother balances complex, conflicting feelings about her family's status as woods-dwelling monsters. On one hand, she does everything she can to stop her daughter from discovering the truth about who she is in an effort to not expose her to the brutal reality of being a Hellbender.

However, Hellbenders are not simply brutal monsters, instead carrying a rich history and set of practices that provide a method for bringing the mother and daughter characters closer together.

In a weird way, most of this film portrays a certain sweetness. Even as we watch the two roll around in the snow, playfully vomiting bile into each others mouths (yeah, I feel weird writing this), we can't help but settle into the notion that growing into a completely anti-social spawn of hell might not be that bad.

But almost as quickly as this movie instills a sense of closure for Izzy, we see the cracks start to form as the young witch yearns to enjoy the same degree of power that she knows her mother has, eventually violating her mother's want for her child to remain "good". By the end of this movie, the audience's calm is absolutely destroyed with visceral imagery that betrays this film's relatively tight budget, and a twist that, while maybe not too shocking to see coming, certainly provides a satisfying ending to this film's 82-minute runtime.

Izzy may not be a kid anymore by the film's end, but it doesn't stop her from indulging in some arts and crafts.

Izzy may not be a kid anymore by the film's end, but it doesn't stop her from indulging in some arts and crafts.

Final Thoughts

Though it is certainly no Hereditary (2018), this coming of age horror film about a disturbing curse that runs in the family succeeds in creating a dynamic and well-conceived narrative.

Without overly relying on CGI that the budget simply couldn't afford, the filmmakers did a fantastic job of using just a few key points of computer aided effects that rival films with some of the most money to spend.

Additionally, the acting in this film is spectacular, no doubt aided by a script written by someone who actually knows how human beings speak to each other. Even the actors portraying the most minor roles convey the ease and confidence of those with dozens of projects under their belts despite the majority of them having IMDB pages they haven't even bothered to update with head shots. It's truly a rarity among films of Hellbender's scale.

So while I probably won't go for a walk in the woods anytime soon, I will definitely revisit this film again, and I encourage horror fans to check it out as well!