Hellbender (2022)

What should be the ideal goal of no-budget backyard filmmaking?  Is it enough to just document an insular community’s collaboration on a fun, collective art project?  Should it also approximate the production values of a “legitimate”, professional production as much as its resources allow?  Or should backyard filmmakers reject the aesthetics of professionalism entirely and instead distinguish themselves as outsider artists?

Your response to those big-picture questions will likely determine your enthusiasm for the low-budget folk horror Hellbender, which recently premiered on Shudder after a buzzy festival run in 2021.  I was charmed by the film’s backstory as a fun art project shared between a real-life family of outsider filmmakers, named—no joke—The Adams Family.  Where I’m skeptical of the film’s enthusiastic reception among horror nerds, though, is that it feels like it’s specifically being praised for the near-professional quality of its production values.  The camera is shockingly active in Hellbender, while most backyard movies rely on static shots due to limited gear & crew.  It’s got enough drone shots, CG effects, and psychedelic flashes of double-exposure horror imagery to pass itself off as a “real” movie – or at least a standard-issue, straight-to-Shudder horror streamer.  I can’t help but question the value of that achievement, though, as impressive as it is.  Backyard movies are best when they’re a little scuzzy & chaotic, touching on volatile images & personalities you won’t find in a professional Hollywood picture.  By that metric, Hellbender is almost competent to a fault: a little too slick to be especially valuable as a backyard movie but not expensive enough to feel fully legit.

The most satisfying aspect of Hellbender is the way its peculiar off-camera production circumstances are echoed in its onscreen drama.  The real-life mother-daughter duo Toby Poser & Zelda Adams play the fictional mother-daughter duo “Mother” & Izzy in the film. Together, they write playful, Jucifer-style metal songs in the fictional band H6LLB6ND6R – a mirror reflection of their real-life familial collaborations as outsider filmmakers (along with additional family members John & Lulu Adams, who also appear on-camera in minor roles).  As adorable as it is that a family can work closely enough to make intergenerational art together, there is something insular & cult-like about their isolation from the outside world, which the Adams are smart to make an explicit part of the text.  The mother strictly quarantines her daughter in a remote woodland cabin as a safety measure, raising her to believe she is too sick to be around outsiders.  It turns out what she means is the daughter is sick as fuck.  They both descend from a bloodline of witches, sharing an inherited power that can be dangerously addictive & destructive when paired with a teenager’s erratic behavior.  The resulting chaos of the daughter-witch inevitably being unleashed into the world unsocialized (a familiar chaos for any overly sheltered child who finally breaks free of parental control) is often cute, often gnarly, and sometimes even genuinely magical.  It just also feels like a cheaper version of superior teen-girl-puberty horrors like Jennifer’s Body, Ginger Snaps, and Teeth, when its outsider-art status means it had the freedom to become something much wilder & less familiar.

If I’m underselling the achievement of these resourceful, self-taught filmmakers shooting a near-professional movie in the woods, it’s probably because I’m undersold on The Adams Family myself.  I’m assuming that a lot of the ecstatic praise from horror nerds is a result of that niche audience having already been familiar with the Adams’ work, watching their craft evolve over the past decade of increasingly competent movies.  Hell, if you’ve been following the family’s career, you’ve practically watched their kids grow up onscreen, which must come with its own inherent emotional investment in their lives & art.  As someone who’s happily over a dozen films deep into the Matt Farley catalog of no-budget horror comedies, I can attest to these long-term collaborations among insular communities improving the longer you spend with the weirdos involved.  I enjoyed Hellbender enough to want to look back to older Adams Family titles like The Deeper You Dig & Halfway to Zen, especially since I’m apparently craving something a little rougher around the edges from them.  I’m questioning the merit of working so hard to make a backyard movie feel professional instead of feeling dangerously unrestrained, but I also wasn’t around for the family’s journey to this milestone.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter if there are a few mild naysayers in the audience like myself anyway, since the film was pre-emptively canonized in the recent folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched before it even hit wide release, so it’s already guaranteed to be cited as a significant work in that subgenre for decades to come regardless of its priorities or ideals as low-budget outsider art.

-Brandon Ledet