Hellbender is another indie horror darling which is amassing lots of critical goodwill but not that much love from the people who matter most, ultimately, the audience.
It follows, well…It Follows as another low-budget production that needs a Kleenex to dab all that spittle off critics’ yobs. But that least with that one, there was a general sense of unease – or what the Germans call unheimlich – as well as some genuinely off-putting visuals and a really audacious plot.
Hellbender, like It Follows, falls into the category of one of the stupider descriptors to come down the pike in a long time, so-called “elevated horror,” a phrase which presupposes that the genre hadn’t up to this point produced anything of value or substance, despite the better ones for decades, being linked to broader cultural metaphors.
Hellbender counts as “elevated” now, because as an art-house film it gets to be written up in The Guardian, characters gaze off into space, and it’s just ambiguous enough, that pseuds can project onto it their own insecurities and desperate subtext-seeking. To wit, it’s a “feminist parable” in some circles (whatever that means) and passes the Bechdel, if not the Test of One’s Patience.
Hellbender focuses on a mother/daughter duo who live in the woods, and perform together in a low-fi indie band. Daughter Izy, is home schooled and sheltered – literally so, in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest – until she meets up with a delinquent squatter in a bikini a few houses down the road. Then things go haywire, or not so much.
The creative and captivating visuals, a la the equally critic/audience polarizing Saint Maud, don’t make up for the fact that for large stretches of the film, little of any consequence actually…happens. Toy cars roll into one another (how artsy!), set to the tune “Drive,” perhaps appropriately, and the big set piece, involving tequila shots and worms generates nary a wiggle of fright.
The Hellbender production has a great backstory, however, ironic given the absence of narrative structure or genuine tension in the film. For those unaware, it’s the product of a family trio of directors, the Adams Family, rather than a fraternal duo cineastes have come to be more familiar with, the Russos, Coens, etc. And there’s no denying they’ve developed an impeccable visual style.
And it’s also impossible to deny the chemistry between the real-life mother-daughter stars, a bit like that recent Netflix series, Maid, starring Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley.
What we’re left with, is a reasonably compelling and often very charming coming of age tale, but what is in actuality a short-film stretched into a full-length feature and that pulls its punches on the horror side of things.
*** (out of 5)