A Witchy Punk Ode To Self In ‘Hellbender’
In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focuses on the uniquely female experience of puberty and the act of coming into your sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror.
For this month’s Uterus Horror, we’re doing something a little different. Historically, the films I’ve discussed in the column date anywhere from the 1940s all the way up to 2019. This time, I’m digging into a brand-new Shudder exclusive, Hellbender.
Hellbender premiered at Fantasia International Film Festival in 2021, where I first saw and reviewed it, before Shudder acquired the stunner for release. If you haven’t seen the film yet — now available on Shudder — I would recommend watching before you read this article as there will most definitely be spoilers ahead.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) live together in the wilderness far away from other people. They have lived there since Izzy was five years old because Izzy is very sick with an autoimmune disease. Mother took her away from other people, and homeschools Izzy to try and keep her safe. Even on short trips to town for supplies, Mother goes alone and Izzy stays at the house. Despite the isolation, Izzy leads a happy life feeding on plants found in the forest, making art, and playing in a band with her mother.
And yet, Izzy is a teen, and teenage curiosity and rebellion is inevitable. While hiking through the woods surrounding their house, Izzy stumbles upon a vacation home with a pool out back. It’s here that she makes her first friend, Amber (Lulu Adams). Despite her initial reservations about getting close to someone due to her illness, Izzy hangs out with Amber for the afternoon. Amber even invites Izzy to come back the next day to hang out with her friends. That is when Izzy reaches a true turning point. As she’s interacting with her new friends, they play a drinking game where one of them must take a tequila shot with a live earthworm in it. Izzy gets the worm and refuses to eat it at first, telling the others she’s a vegetarian, but the group eventually convinces her to eat it.
Eating the worm unlocks something deep within Izzy. When she gets back home and tells her mother what happened, the truth is finally revealed. Izzy was never sick. Instead, her mother brought her out to the wild, away from other people, because she’s dangerous. Izzy and her mother are “Hellbenders,” women who were said to have turned their backs from Heaven and bent to Hell. These women tap into the essence of the living things they eat and use it to perform magic. The more fearful that living thing, the more potent the magic. So begins Izzy’s journey of self-discovery as her mother teaches her the ways of a Hellbender — but not the whole truth, to hopefully keep Izzy from turning towards darkness. Izzy takes on a large part of this journey on her own until her power surpasses that of the woman who bore her.
To say that Hellbender is a family affair is a gross understatement. Not only does the plot focus on the relationship between mother and daughter. Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, and John Adams wrote and directed the film, also while starring in it alongside Lulu Adams. Perhaps the fact that Hellbender was co-written by an actual teenager helps to explain how the film was able to capture the Uterus Horror subgenre so well.
As is common in Uterus Horror, Izzy is presented as an outcast. While her initial interactions with outsiders suggests her sheltered, secluded life is the reason for that, we soon learn it’s because she isn’t necessarily human. As a Hellbender, she is more powerful and more dangerous than other kids her age. As Izzy learns more about this side of herself and taps into power she never knew she had, there is a clear change in both her physical appearance and her personality. When we first meet her, Izzy looks a bit sickly. She has dark circles under her eyes, hunches as if trying to hide herself, and her speech is timid. As she comes into her power, Izzy looks stronger, she stands a bit taller, and her personality takes on a more dominant and defiant tone.
The relationship between Izzy and her mother also calls to the Uterus Horror subgenre. At first, the two are quite close. It’s obvious these characters love each other, even though Izzy harbors at least a small amount of resentment at being kept away from society. While Mother is willing to teach Izzy about her power and magic, she still holds back certain aspects of that truth.
Izzy is resourceful enough to find out on her own.
Although her mother seems to be ignorant of it, the audience knows Izzy is learning everything her mother wants to keep from her, and her power is growing quickly. It takes no time at all for Izzy’s supernatural strength to surpass that of her mother’s, flipping the power dynamic between mother and daughter.
At one point in Hellbender, we learn that their kind are “self-reproducing.” How this is possible isn’t explained until the end. Throughout the film some variation of “Winter eats Fall, Fall eats Summer, Summer eats Spring, Spring eats Winter” is said. This is a hint at just how Hellbenders can self-reproduce; the child eats the mother and then births the next generation. This element adds to the shift in power dynamics between Izzy and her mother. Before Izzy knew the truth, her mother was in control, but the moment she learned to use her powers, Izzy became the “alpha” in the family. Izzy is the only one with the power to kill her mother, but luckily Izzy isn’t ready to be a mother herself. This harkens to a common trend we’ve seen in Uterus Horror where the relationships between mothers and their daughters take on a primal, animalistic nature. There is a lifecycle to these relationships: mother protects child; mother and child become equals; mother and child become rivals. It is the inevitability of two apex predators competing for power and resources.
Not only do Hellbenders represent the concept of feminism that men fear, but Izzy and her mother also represent the two different sides of strong women in a patriarchal society. Hellbenders are women, they self-reproduce, and they hold more power than any human man ever could. They don’t need men for anything, not even for reproduction, something men often like to point out they’re needed for. The idea of feminism and witchcraft is the very thing a male-dominated society fears most. That fear only adds to the power. Mother represents women trying to fit into that kind of society. She tries to be “good” by stifling not only her power, but her daughter’s as well, to show those around her they do not need to fear.
Izzy, on the other hand, fully embraces the power inside her. To Izzy, it’s simply part of her nature as a Hellbender and not something she should hide. There are many great examples showcasing this dynamic throughout the film, but my personal favorite is the song lyrics Izzy recites at the climax of the film. The lyrics tell the story of a wolf who pretends to be a sheep and raises her pup as a sheep as well, until the day that pup becomes a wolf and only sees her mother as a sheep, so she devours her. After all, it’s in the wolf’s nature to eat sheep.
Hellbender manages to encompass many different aspects of Uterus Horror. It tells the story of a teenage girl discovering herself and embracing the power within. It conveys the primal instinct between mother and daughter, and how these instincts evolve as a child becomes an independent adult. The film even showcases what men fear most: powerful women that have no use for them. Together, these elements melt and merge to create a potent message of embracing the person you were meant to become, even if it means breaking societal norms. It’s time for women to stop hiding their power for the sake of men and fully embrace the Hellbender within.