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SYFY WIRE Fantasia International Film Festival

'Hellbender' is an intimate indie horror experience and a killer example of low-budget frights

By Matthew Jackson

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is how adaptable it is to low budgets — and since you don't need to have a mountain of cash to make a horror movie, that means all manner of demented creative minds can take a crack at their personal vision of terror. I adore low-budget horror films, not because they look cheap or because they show the zipper going up the creature's back, but because of the level of ingenuity you can find in the best ones.

Look at Halloween or The Evil Dead or, more recently, hits like Host. With a little money and a lot of energy, the right storytellers can bring a truly special horror film to life through sheer force of creative will and attention to craft. It takes work and determination and the right group of people to believe in you, of course, but when the right low-budget horror film comes along, it makes it all look like magic.

Hellbender, the latest film from The Deeper You Dig creative team of John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams which premiered earlier this month at Fantasia Fest, is that kind of magical horror experience. With just a handful of characters, one primary location, and a kickass soundtrack, this intimate little movie builds something far bigger than the sum of its parts, in the process becoming one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Poser and Zelda Adams star as a mother and a daughter who live an isolated life in the woods, supposedly because of some illness that keeps them from the outside world. There's more to the story than that, though, and the older young Izzy (Adams) gets, the more she starts to suspect her existence is isolated for a larger, darker reason. What follows is a combination of coming-of-age drama and folk horror spine-tingler, as Izzy and her mother must reckon with what they're learning not just about each other, but about themselves.

Hellbender achieves this journey by, at first, giving us what looks like a broad view of Izzy and her mother's life together. We see them playing songs with painted faces, swimming in a nearby river, eating little handcrafted meals together in a house that feels equal parts cottagecore and punk. We see the easy, peaceful bond between them and the way it seems to link every action, and for a little while, at least, the film almost seems to be something tame, like a placid indie drama about self-discovery and the power of song.

But Hellbender has teeth, and they're both sharp and quick.

The film's horror is anchored by an extraordinary attention to detail that comes through in every directorial choice the trio makes, from the carefully crafted close-ups of things like leaves and berries to the pageantry of the musical sequences and the raw energy they carry. There's a mesmeric quality to even the simplest compositions, as the film slowly builds all of its ingredients up around the characters while never losing its sense of humor and heart.

That humor and heart certainly come easy to Poser and Adams as they carry their real-world family ties into the film, but there's something else in almost every scene in Hellbender that feels both less automatic and instantly effective. Amid all these little details — patterns in blood and berry juice, the slow trickle of a stream, a locked door leading to an attic room — there's a palpable sense of unease lurking that feels both true to the experience of every teenager with a dominant parental figure in their lives and true to the horror atmosphere that seeps into Hellbender like low morning fog. That Poser and Adams are able to convey that so effortlessly is commendable. That they're able to do while also not telegraphing the film's payoffs is thrilling.

It's those payoffs, which I cannot and will not spoil here, that make Hellbender particularly special even amid a larger landscape of booming low-budget horror filmmaking. All those little details, all that careful tonal tightrope-walking, all those touches of atmosphere are building to something in this film, and the result is an indie horror movie that creates sweeping, almost epic emotional stakes by the end. The most effective low-budget horror films are often the ones that create a sense that a larger world is lurking just around the corner. Hellbender not only gives us that feeling, but gives us a peek inside that larger world and its wonders, and that makes it a film horror fans should not miss.

Hellbender arrives on Shudder in 2022.

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