Hellbender. Available now on Shudder.
Just out of college, I worked at a small newspaper in the Mississippi Delta. After a few months, the owners brought in a new executive editor, a barking, desk-pounding type straight out of The Front Page. When he announced on his first Friday afternoon that the newsroom's four reporters were going to accompany him to the saloon, opting out did not seem wise, or even possible.
At the bar, he began ordering trays full of tequila shots for us. And more. And more. One of the reporters foresaw disaster, pretended he had to go to the bathroom, and slipped away. Another awoke in the city drunk tank, his car impounded. One opened his eyes in the morning to find himself in a strange bed in a strange house alongside a strange woman. And I found myself lying on my back porch in a pool of, well, you can guess, with neither any memory of how I got home or any knowledge of where my keys were. I had to break a window to get in.
I mention this because, after watching the streaming horror network Shudder's Hellbender, I realize mine is only the second-worst introduction to shots in the recorded history of tequila debauchery. When Hellbender's teenaged Izzy loses a drinking contest with her friends and has to do a shot with a worm in it, she starts channeling shrieking witches and craving an all-Renfieldian diet. You can practically see a little thought-bubble over her mom's head, longing for the good old days of Tide pods.
Made for about $1.29 by a husband-wife director-screenwriter team who used their own family for cast and crew, Hellbender is at once painfully obvious and creepily enjoyable. There's not a lot of suspense; the opening moments are a flashback to what looks like a 17th-century witch hanging (the victim is actually something a little different than a witch, but it's close enough for government work). The deft sketch of Izzy and her family drawn over the next few minutes leaves little doubt that supernatural hobgoblinery is afoot.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her never-named mother (screenwriter-director Toby Poser, a longtime cast member of the soap Guiding Light, and Zelda Adams' real-life mom) live alone on a rural mountainside where they home-school, play in a two person-person goth metal band (sample lyrics: "Whip it! Cut!"), and live on live on a diet of mostly nuts and tree bark.
Izzy, told she has an auto-immune deficiency, is never allowed to go into town, and spends much of her time hiking the primeval forest until, inevitably, she runs into Amber (Lulu Adams, her real-life sister), another teenager who's illicitly using the swimming pool of a house on a neighboring mountain. Kids being kids, tequila, worms, and cannibalism quickly follow.
Much of the grisly charm of Hellbender comes from the cockeyed, anthropophaginian coming-of-age chatter that follows. Mom, noticing the glut of stripped-clean bones suddenly dotting the neighborhood, decides it's time for a heart-to-heart conversation with Izzy that's short on birds and bees but long on the culinary usages of maggots and lizards.
The girl's auto-immune system is really okay, but like Mom, she's a critter known as a Hellbender, which acquires witchy superpowers every time it eats a living creature—the bigger the better. Hellbenderism can be fun, Mom confides, but it's also a bit of a slippery slope: Grandma "ate half the village" before folks got the torches and pitchforks out of their garages. Teenage tiffs can easily get out of hand, and sweetie-pie expressions like "I love you so much, I could just eat you up" are gross for more reasons than one. Most importantly, Hellbender generation gaps are a little stickier than the one we had in the '60s.
Hellbender has wit, style and some awesomely gruesome special effects. It would be fun to see what Poser and her husband John Adams (who also appears in the show as an early a la carte item) could do with an actual budget. Go Fund Me, anybody? Meanwhile, avoid the early-bird dinner special.