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)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre has so much spoon feeding, you’d think you were at a long-term care home. And that makes sense, as at this point, if this is a direct sequel to the events of the 1974 movie, Leatherface would be clad in adult diapers.

Hey, Netflix idiots*, YOU retconned the interceding films. I’m just pointing this out.

Anyway, you have the lone survivor from the first movie, Sally, whose background and character is thoroughly and utterly underdeveloped, other than for the fact she’s hellbent on Leatherface’s destruction. That’s it. Not a single kernel of intrigue, interest, past, present, future, dreams, aspirations, nothing. Nada. At least Halloween 2018 gave us a broken down Laurie Strode and a family torn apart at the seams.

And Mustang Sally wields a shotgun, wears a cowboy hat, and is busy staring forlornly at an old polaroid, that cliché of action movies when the hero is about to open a can of whupp-ass on some unsuspecting unibrows. And if that’s not enough to bring everyone up to speed, there’s a local store discussion of the events of the first film, in case there were a few people scratching their heads about what the abstruse and enigmatic title, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” could possibly mean.

The plot, if you can call it that, is fiberoptic cable-thin: a group of venture capitalists come into Harlow, Texas to buy what is essentially a derelict, abandoned town. But these are silly, rather than Sili-con valley types, a bunch of crudely-drawn SJW stereotypes that wouldn’t even pass muster in The Green Inferno and who arrive on a party coach. Why, you ask, would a bunch of investors not have their own vehicles but would instead charter a Greyhound? Beats me.

They’re welcomed by a toothpick chomping self-sufficient local yokel type, who’s character is about as well-developed as one of the charioteer extras in Ben-Hur. And he welcomes the youngsters with eyes on turning Harlow into Portland-lite, with a jaundiced eye. Shocker. He even asks, “are you guys in a cult?” despite nothing whatsoever indicating they would be. And that’s meant to be a zinger.

Among the investors’ ranks, a college student who survived a school shooting, as evidenced by the scar on her chest. And lest the POLITICAL MESSAGE is lost on you, don’t worry: the desiccated town still flies a Confederate flag and the entourage scrolls through BLM social posts to demonstrate their lefty bona fides. That has all the subtlety of a tornado, and blows just as much.

The gentrifiers inadvertently boot out one of the townsfolk, a lady who…well, that’d spoil something that’s already spoiled like a rotten carcass.

There are so many things wrong with Texas Chainsaw Massacre it’s impossible to know what to touch on first. Is it the cheap, Potemkin village sets that have this town looking like a WB backlot or a B-western? Is it the party bus, brought in just to pad the body count with a bunch of people who utter no lines of dialogue? Is it the stereotype of social justice warriors turning the town into an artisanal brunch utopia, absent any backstory save for the school shooting survivor, who’s not even the movie’s bloody star? Is it the lazy pot-shots at activists, including the “you’re cancelled, bruh” snappers looking to live stream Leather? Is it the fact that this is obviously not shot within several time-zones of the Lone Star State? Is it the torrential downpour to bathe everything in Gothic lighting? (because if it’s one thing you associate with Texas, it’s not longhorns, barbecue, cowboy hats, Tex-Mex or The Alamo, it’s rain??)

Much is being made online about Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s gory kills. Which is interesting, as Tobe Hooper’s original had none of that. And that’s decidedly not the film’s draw. FYI, it’s not a selling point. It’s like getting Spike Lee to direct Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, known for focusing on the lives of two, yes only two characters – and ending up with 75.

Funny, that. It’s one thing to take a movie known for throwaway kills (say, oh, The Friday the 13th series), and double down on the nastiness for a new audience…After all, nobody turns to the series for fulsome political discourses or higher order visual metaphors, so might as well have Jason skewer people in novel ways. But to take a movie that was understated in its violence yet still scary, and negate the latter by ramping up the former…well, it all amounts to a big, sad heap of nothing burgers.

There’s little atmosphere, nobody, save for the shooting victim and her sister evoke even a scintilla of sympathy, the dialogue, rather than to round out characters, is there to enforce caricatures. Somebody, make it stop.

Just because the film went through production hell, doesn’t mean this has to be inflicted on the rest of us.

* (out of 5)

[Editors’ note: Netflix didn’t produce this, only distribute it. So are only partly to blame]