Hellbender is the type of occult film there is not enough. There needs to be more coming of age movies involving the dark arts. Making its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, the film has already been acquired by Shudder. It is about a young girl named Izzy (Zelda Adams) who lives in the mountains. After sneaking to town, she makes a new friend and discovers a sinister family secret.
The cold open immediately instills a sense of creepiness. After letting the audience know Hellbender is going to test their fortitude, it goes into a cheesy title card. The film is either going to be a silly horror comedy or have issues establishing a tone. As it turns out, neither is the case. Aside from the strange opening, there is nothing silly about the movie. It is an intimate tale that is heavy on atmosphere and scares.
Before going full-on horror, Hellbender is a normal story about a young teenager trying to learn more about her life. Izzy meets a new friend named Amber (Lulu Adams) and her life seems to be getting better. Their interactions are familiar and fun to watch. The scenes with Izzy and her mother are also well done. Taken together, everything paints a picture of a teenager becoming an adult. Hellbender is headed in a scary direction and it will be interesting to see how the plot gets there.
Ironically, the scarier moments tend to be the weakest. They are gory and add atmosphere, but they lack the same impact. There is nothing wrong, they just do not hold up as well in comparison. This may be due to Hellbender’s quick pace. While it would be wrong to say it moves at a rapid pace, but it is not slow enough to allow plot points to settle. Case in point: the inevitable argument that ends the friendship between Izzy and Amber happens within ten minutes of them meeting. It all just seems a little off.
The relationship ends up describing the entire film. There is a lot of good to be found. Its take on witches and the occult is nicely done and the human relationships are great to watch. But there is also a sense that Hellbender could have been something more. The rushed story impacts the horror, for example. There is a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see what the Adams family do next.
The Fantasia Film Festival takes place in person and online from August 5 – August 25
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