If there’s a through-line to some of the best movies of 2022 thus far, it’s a fixation on the body’s inexorable march toward decay and a perverse, giddy freedom in embracing it. Or, as Léa Seydoux declares in Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s squirm-inducing return to body horror, “Let us create a map that will guide us into the heart of darkness.” Seydoux’s character is in the middle of science fiction surgery as part of an underground performance art show, but she may as well be addressing the mute Assassin who literally traverses a nightmarish abyss in Phil Tippett’s lovely, grotesque Mad God, or Sofia Kappel’s exploited/exploitative quest for A-list status in the mainstream adult film industry in Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure. Even Marvel, the last vestige of the monoculture, assimilated 1980s gorehound Sam Raimi for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film whose climax involves the hero performing necromancy on a rotting version of himself. The landscape of cinema in 2022 is that bit in Chloe Okuno’s Watcher (great film; you should see it) when its adrift protagonist politely waves to a shadow in an apartment across the street, only for the shadow to wave back.
And then there’s Hellbender, perhaps the most surefooted and exuberant of the bunch. Co-directed by Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, and John Adams (Toby and John being Zelda’s parents, comprising a familial production team self-described as the “Adams Family”—adorable), Hellbender is a coming of age horror film that revels in the discovery of change, even if it’s the change that destroys us.
Teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives an isolated existence with her Mother (Toby Poser) in the woods, informing the unfortunate few she encounters that she’s “home schooled.” As the title indicates, Izzy and Mother are recluses for supernatural reasons, as one doofus hiker discovers at his peril. “What if Onibaba but heavy metal” was not on my 2022 cinematic bingo card, but here we are.
It’s not a bad life; Izzy and Mother have regular jam sessions and dine on beautifully arranged twigs. But Izzy craves the unknown and befriends a few local teens, and when the kids play a gross prank at Izzy’s sheltered expense, it wakes something up in her. This may sound rote—horror films have traded in puberty metaphors since the genre’s inception (most notably Carrie)—but what’s interesting about Hellbender is the sheer joy it and Izzy take in her self discovery. There’s a disgustingly wonderful bonding session involving maggots and a frolic in the snow, maggots being the living distillation of death and renewal. Hellbender shares with the underestimated Firestarter this notion that existence comes at a price and takes a toll, and suggests that that’s something to be celebrated in all its awful glory.
The best movies of 2022 are coming from auteurs ruminating on their craft (Tippett is 70 years old; Cronenberg 79) and a generation of newcomers inheriting a seemingly moribund medium. “Spring eats winter” is a mantra Izzy and Mother repeat to one another. Time is an ouroboros. I hope the same is true for film.
Runtime: 86 minutes
MPA Rating: No rating