Reviews: unusual folk-horror in Hellbender

Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams, Rinzin Thonden

Prefaced by a historical flashback, a small town executing a woman accused of magic and attacks against her neighbours, this is a pretty interesting and frequently macabre film right from the kick-off – a judicial hanging, shooting and fire, just for starters! The bulk of the film is set in the present day, in a remote, rural part of New York state, where mother (Toby Poser) and teen daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) live a very isolated yet seemingly content existence, their large house set in its own private woodland.

Izzy has a rare condition, meaning she can’t be in contact with other people. As a result, her mother has home-schooled her for her entire life, and she can’t go any further than the boundary of their wooded property. While she and her mother seem happy enough together – frequently jamming together to play metal – there are hints fairly early on that there is far more going on here than a “boy in the bubble” healthcare approach. When a disoriented hiker comes across Izzy walking alone in the woods, she is startled – she’s not used to talking to anyone other than her mother, let alone a stranger, and of course she’s had it drummed into her that if anyone gets too close, her condition means she could be compromised (this also evoked memories for me of the early days of Lockdown, pre-vaccine, where we all kept our distance from the few others we passed in a street).

Her mother appears as the two talk – the man not only asks for help in directions back to the road and his car, he talks to Izzy, mentioning his niece who is around her age and goes to school nearby, which intrigues Izzy with notions of the outside world and potential friends her own age. Her mother orders her back to the house and starts to show the hiker his way back to his car, to usher him from theirroperty, but then starts asking him questions, which soon set the viewer’s alarm bells ringing – especially when she begins questioning him about if he is married, has children, basically if anyone will notice right away if he doesn’t go home. Any horror fan knows where that is likely to be leading…

But the seeds have been planted in Izzy’s brain, and she goes from content with her remote lifestyle to curious about the rest of the world. She spies on a young woman using a garden swimming pool (Amber, played by Lulu Adams), but Amber sees her hiding in the treeline, and soon the two are talking then enjoying the pool and a beer together. Izzy tells her about being kept at home, and away from school and other people, and about the band she and her mother formed and play in, which they call Hellbender – Amber is taken with that idea and nick-names Izzy “Hellbender”, inviting her to come back and meet her and a couple of other friends later. A teen prank which sees her having to ingest a live worm causes a strange reaction in her – not triggering some medical shock, but something more spiritual, even supernatural.

Her mother is, of course, not too happy about this growing situation, and starts to explain to Izzy the real reason she’s been kept isolated all this time, about her true legacy and why ingesting that creature caused such a visceral reaction. Izzy, like her mother, and her mother before her, is heir to certain abilities, and like many abilities, they can be very dangerous is you are not skilled and trained in how to control them, something she is going to have to now learn from her mother.

I found this to be a terrific slice of American folk-horror – the isolated, rural setting really adds to the atmosphere. It transpires that this, and the tiny cast, comes from necessity – not just because of a small budget, but because it was mostly filmed during the Covid Lockdown. It’s a family affair – the mother-daughter here are in fact a real-life mother and daughter, the friend Amber is her sister, the uncle (and co-director) is her father, and the family wrote, directed, produced and starred in it, while each taking turns as a tiny film crew during Lockdown. I think that necessity actually helps the atmosphere and brooding, isolated, country Gothic feel of the film immensely. It also shows nicely in the acting – before I learned they were real-life mother and daughter, I felt the connection between the pair seemed very convincing; a scene where Izzy is slowly learning of her magical heritage was especially good, the young woman closely watching her mother’s actions with a close but clearly affectionate look, imitating what she was doing. It’s a tiny moment in one scene, but it’s moments like that which help sell you on the reality of a character and make you invest emotionally in them.

There are numerous very stylish touches here, many done in a very non-flashy way, being used for creating more atmosphere rather than trying to be showy for the sake of it, which I appreciated. From lashed-together wooden sigils (a nod to Blair Witch and some other notable horrors) to simple but very creepy moments (the mother cutting herself, placing her wounded hand on a piece of wall, for a bloody keyhole to appear with key on the back of her hand to access a secret space) this is filled with well-deployed visual and aural elements to maximise that creepy, disturbing atmosphere the film already draws on just from the location in the Deep, Dark Woods. The mythology here was also quite refreshing, even to an old horror-hound like me, as it didn’t just do the “oh, actually you’re a witch or vampire” type reveal, their family heritage and abilities are more convoluted and unusual. Add in a very interesting take on the coming-of-age story, and a subsequent, slowly-changing family dynamic this causes, and some very creepy, dark moments, and you have a cracking little Indy folk-horror for the dark autumnal evenings.

Hellbender is released by Acorn Media International as a Shudder Original on DVD (including extras such as how the effects were created, behind the scenes, more of the music the characters play) on September 5th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Lola

EIFF 2022 – Lola,
Directed by Andrew Legge,
Starring Stefanie Martini, Emma Appleton, Rory Fleck Byrne, Aaron Monaghan

I had a good feeling when I first read about Andrew Legge’s debut feature in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival programme; when I get that buzz for a film or book I normally find my instincts were bang on, and I am glad to report that continues to be the case (thank you, intuition, you know what I will like!). Lola is the name of a special machine created and operated by two eccentric sisters, Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and Martha Hanbury (Stefanie Martini), a series of valves and tubes and wires that can tune into broadcasts from the future. The two have grown up isolated in a big, old country house in 1930s England, naming the machine after their late mother.

Once they confirm that the machine works by tuning into broadcasts in their near future and seeing if they then unfold as predicted, it starts off relatively light-hearted. The women use the machine to learn the winners in some upcoming horse races, making themselves a decent income to survive on, before going on to tune into a cultural smorgasbord of broadcasts from the future, especially music (Bowie, the Kinks and Dylan feature particularly). Thom is the more emotionally remote of the pair – she clearly adores her sister but has little time for anyone else, and if she has thought out some of the implications of her work, she isn’t sharing those concerns, nor does she plans to share the machine with the rest of the scientific world.

Martha, by comparison, is the more emotionally warm of the two, and also more tuned to the new cultural experiences Lola can bring to them, quickly falling in Love with the likes of Bowie being broadcast from the 1970s, or Dylan in the 60s, as well as relishing the idea of the huge societal and cultural changes these musical movements indicate, so very different from the buttoned-down British society of the 1930s and 40s. Thom is the technical, scientific genius, but Martha sees Lola more for the way it can show her a world beyond what she otherwise could experience, and Martini does a wonderful job of conveying her total delight at all of this.

However, as the Nazi menace grows and war arrives, they both start to wonder if they shouldn’t be using their remarkable invention to help. Thom still doesn’t want to share her creation with anyone else, but she’s not against some form of aid, so they create a covert way of broadcasting warnings, using a clever system to make it almost impossible for the authorities to track their signal. In this way they can listen into news from a day or two in advance, then warn people in a certain area to take cover because an air raid will happen that evening without any warning. This soon earns them the nickname of the “Angel of Portobello”, and while most cheer these anonymous saviours (a newsreel shows and ARP Warden outside a shattered home, explaining his home was clobbered by German bombers, but thanks to the warning, his family was safe in the shelter), of course the authorities are keen to track them down and find out how they gather this intelligence.

The film is presented as a sort-of mix of found footage and documentary; it begins with the discovery of a pile of old film cans in an abandoned country mansion, all dated from the 1940s. It is through these that we discover the story of Lola – the sisters were determined to document their creation and the discoveries they make with it, but the films also include period newsreels (many doctored quite cleverly to include the cast or relevant events – shade of Forrest Gump). As the authorities finally become involved, the desperate nature of the Second World War demands that Lola be used to help a Britain with its back against the wall, and while this is perfectly understandable, anyone who has read a lot of science fiction will, as I did, already have an inkling that there will be repercussions to all of this – any change to the here and now (or the tomorrow morning) will ripple out into the future, the same future the sisters have been listening to, but will it be for good or ill? You’ll have to see the film to find that out.

While not without its flaws – for instance faked newsreel footage of Lola and her use to fight the Nazis struck me as wrong, I’m sure in such a scenario it would have been as kept as tightly secret as the famous Bletchley Park), other historical what-if moments didn’t sit quite right with me (knowing a good bit of the period). But those are minor niggles and, to be fair, I can see why Legge chose to have them because they do work in the context of the narrative he is telling here. And besides, with any tale involving playing with time, arguments over those what-if moments and how they could have been or not is all a part of the fun, isn’t it? Fuel for a good post-movie chat in the pub afterwards.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 04
(some photos I took of director Legge with his two main actors, Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton, on stage at the Everyman cinema after their Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Lola. Snapped in dark auditorium from several rows back, so please excuse the low quality!)
Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 06

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 05

As we go on we find there is a very good reason for the amount of the found footage, not just there because of documenting the creation of Lola, which I won’t go into, but I liked the idea and how it fitted into explaining some of the film. The main actors and director talked to the late-night festival audience, and some of the footage was shot on period cameras – those wonderful old clockwork-powered movie cameras – often in the hands of the actors themselves, with the cast and director also often developing those films, using slightly odd processes to ensure they looked damaged and dated, like they would if left in old film cans in an abandoned home for decades, and this compliments Oona Menges’s cinematography. As these reels were essentially documentary, the actors explained Legge had to keep telling them to ignore their acting training and dial down their performances to something more real-life, more documentary than narrative, and they both do this very well (with Martini and Appleton carrying the bulk of the screen time).

It’s a clever piece of micro-film science fiction using concept over the need for huge effects, a small and intimate cast but a huge central idea, the kind that can have you debating points of it for ages after watching the film. In many ways it reminded me of another time-travel, micro-budget movie I also saw at the EIFF many years ago, Primer, and I think Lola can hold her head up next to Primer, and I hope will garner itself a similar reputation and following.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Summer in the Shade

Summer in the Shade,
Directed by Alice Millar,
Starring Niamh Walter, Nyobi Hendry, Rebecca Palmer, Zaqi Ismail

It’s the summer of 1997, and best friends Grace (Niamh Walter) and Asta (Nyobi Hendry) are going with Asta’s mother, Kate (Rebecca Palmer) for a break in Cornwell. It sounds like an ideal piece of childhood fun, a little while away with your bestie, free from everything else. But Niamh is dealing with problems, not least that her father has left her and her mother (the trip may be as much to give her mother some space as it is to give Grace a holiday). In fact her father is glimpsed only at the start, reading her a bedtime story – Penelope waiting for the return of Odysseus, which turns out to be prescient given his departure soon after.

Added into this emotional stew, the girls are approaching their teen years, and are in that strange, liminal space, still children for the most part, but adolescence and puberty are beckoning; they still want to play games like kids, but they’re also starting to talk about boys and sex, in that hushed, overheard-in-the-playground half-truths many of us will remember from those early years. One foot still in childhood, the other stepping very uncertainly into becoming older but not quite sure where to step or where the path leads. Millar and her young cast capture that feeling very well, that urge to be seen as more grown up while still partly wanting to hold onto elements of your childhood, something we’ve all been through. Even the mis-en-scene quietly, effectively evokes this as the camera circles Grace’s bedroom, a mix of childish interests any young girl of the time could be into, but also hints of interest in older age elements, like make-up; it’s a small touch, but effective, and also signals that tiny budget or not, there’s a lot of care and attention gone into the production.

While the girls play and talk – Grace is going through a religious phase and Asta enjoys spooky, supernatural stories, and these bleed into their imagination and play – what seems like a carefree break in the countryside slowly reveals the fault lines below each person’s emotional life. Even Kate, the Bohemian mother of Asta, who seems to radiate a positive, easy-going confident demeanour, has relationship problems. We’ve all had that feeling that that other people around us seem to have this life thing figured out much better than we do, although we all know that really everyone has problems; Palmer’s performance brings that out nicely, just a few cracks here and there subtly signalling that really she’s going through the same as everyone else, everyone has problems, that’s just life.

Zaqi Ismail’s Sid joins the small cast in Cornwall, sleeping rough in a little forest den the girls had made, after a misunderstanding by the girls (letting their imaginations out of control), Kate invites him to stay with them for a while, and he soon establishes a friendship with each of them, but of course introducing a man into this female environment also adds to the emotional complexity – it starts to become clear that Kate, more emotionally vulnerable than she at first appears, is drawn to Sid, and while Grace is too young, she is, perhaps, just old enough to feel some little pangs of jealousy when she sees Kate flirting with him.

While much of this is a coming-of-age tale (especially for Grace), the inclusion of the problems of the adults nicely balances this, hinting that it’s not just the adolescents struggling to know what they want, how to get it, how to act, who to be with, that’s just a life problem regardless of your age, and perhaps we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so much about it. You could also read Summer in some of the terms of a horror film – it’s not a horror, per se, but it uses some elements and stylistic riffs quite effectively, evoking echoes of British folk horror, which works very well, all nicely done in a fairly low-key way through good cinematography and soundscape use. An effective and emotional directorial debut; I look forward to seeing more work from Millar.

Summer in the Shade is streaming online now.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: intriuging Indy SF with Repeat

Directed by Grant Archer and Richard Millar,
Starring Charlotte Ritchie, Tom England, Ellila-Jean Wood, Nina Wadia

Academic Ryan Moore (Tom England) is becoming obsessed with his research project, to the detriment of his wife Emily (Charlotte Ritchie) and young daughter Sam (Ellila-Jean Wood), not to mention his own career (his friend and supervisor is attempting to cover for him, but he can only do so much, especially when it is clear Ryan’s not really listening to his concerns). We can see right from the start that he’s going off the rails somewhat, when he and an assistant have one of his students over to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment using a lash-up of different pieces of equipment in his garage – this is not how approved research works in academia, especially any involving volunteers. The poor girl is clearly nervous and Ryan is simply not giving her much information as to what the experiment involves, nor what potential risks may be involved, all very serious disregarding of the protocols for academic research (even at graduate level you get this drummed into you), and his repeated “don’t worry about it” and “that’s alright” ring hollow right from the start.

It’s a good way to introduce him and his work though, as the viewer can see right away that Ryan’s project is pushing him to ignore all the normal guidelines for safe research, in addition to neglecting his teaching duties and his family obligations, and we all know that little good usually comes from that sort of obsession. But what is it that is driving Ryan? Well, the thinks he has found a way, using technology, to communicate with the dead – long the stuff of (frequently discredited) seances, spiritualism and mediums, he is trying to make it happen using science and technology. People are understandably pretty sceptical, until a few attempts seem to be proving that he may just be correct – the volunteers are asking questions, and the answers coming back would seem to be ones only the person asking and their deceased loved one could be aware of.

Of course, as Harry Houdini once proved repeatedly, and others have since (the late Great Randi springs to mind) have debunked such post-mortem contacts as just elaborate tricks, using the same stagecraft and misdirection as many a stage magician does. And yet Ryan is no stage illusionist, and it is starting to look like perhaps he is somehow breaking through the barriers to the realm of the dead. Or is he? Where exactly are the people he is speaking to? They often seem to be confused, stating that they can’t see anyone, that they feel as if they have been asleep, that everything is dark. Has he really tapped into some sort of dimension where we go when we die? Do we really want to know what it is like, if he has? Will we like the answers?

Added into this and the ongoing problems his obsessive work has created at his college and with his wife (they are attending couples therapy) is the fact that Ryan and Emily’s young daughter Sam has vanished – she was seen speaking to someone outside the school gates one evening, an evening Ryan should have been there to pick her up but was too busy with his work. And she has since vanished without a trace, the police unable to find any clue of her whereabouts or her fate, but the inference being that she is more than likely dead. If she is, could he contact her? Could he assuage his guilt at not being there to pick her up by asking her what happened? Would any of this even help now?

While there were some problems with this, such as the timeline jumping around a bit and not always being very clear (although this may be partly intentional as the narrative has a looping structure around its events), and what I would consider plot holes (an explanation given later would seem to stand in contradiction to what happened earlier, but I can’t go into that without spoilers), and of course the whole thing is operating on a tiny budget, so much of it takes place in a handful of locations with a few main actors (others, like Nina Wadia do appear but only fleetingly, although very effectively on an emotional aspect).

But these are small niggles – overall I found this very intriguing, and given the scant resources available to the film-makers I’m impressed with the ideas behind this. Like Indy SF classic Primer, which I first saw at the Edinburgh International Film Festival years ago, this doesn’t have big budget or names, so instead takes an intriguing central idea then runs with it, and it’s a fascinating one that has the potential to open all sorts of questions if true. A clever little slice of Indy SF film.

Repeat is released on various platforms by Trinity Creative from November 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films