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‘Hellbender’ Review: The Trap of Generational Trauma

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Clocking in at just under an hour and a half, Hellbender, an “Adams Family” production, provides a surprisingly nuanced story with well-developed characters. The coming-of-age film centers on Izzy, an isolated teenager played by Zelda Adams, and her mother, played by Toby Poser. As Izzy begins to rebel, much like any teenager, she learns about herself and her family. What makes it horror? Plenty of occult happenings and history, as well as a hefty serving of blood.

The opening scene is creepy and effective, showing a mysterious hanging ceremony in the woods. We don’t know who is hanged or why, and there is a definite chill as we watch the act being carried out by a group of unaffected women.

The scene immediately following the intense opening struck me as a bit cheesy, but it played into the rest of the movie well. We jump from the somber hanging to band practice consisting solely of Izzy and her mother. Their duo plays punk rock music in heavy makeup, seemingly just for kicks because Izzy has an immune disease and is forbidden to go into town or meet people. It’s a strange setup, but the motif of their heavy music eventually pays off. Along with trippy visuals, scenes of action, and more band practice, the peculiarity of a mother-daughter punk duo gradually becomes easier to swallow.

Part of what makes their band, the Hellbenders, more acceptable are the circumstances. Izzy’s mother wants the best for her and genuinely works to provide it. She amuses her daughter, supplies her with tools for hobbies, and strives for a communicative relationship. However, a mother’s best intentions can often result in great harm, as we’ve seen in other horror media such as Stephen King’s Carrie. In fact, the mother in Hellbender reminds me of a more sympathetic Margaret White. As opposed to a religious zealot who stops at nothing to protect her daughter from the outside world, Izzy’s mother is a different sort of zealot with dogged determination to protect her daughter. Although her mother doesn’t physically abuse Izzy, she still makes questionable parenting choices, such as isolating Izzy and lying to her. Another difference between the two parents is that while they both eventually reveal their secrets to their daughters, Izzy’s mother continues to nurture her daughter and help her.

Also mirroring Carrie is the main character’s journey of self-discovery. It is a coming-of-age story, after all. We focus on both teenagers at a significant turning point in their lives, but we must look at the past to understand the characters’ progression. In Hellbender, the distant past is important. There’s generational trauma, passed from mother to daughter, an endless cycle of pain and regrowth.

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The film raises questions about parenting, power, fear, and fate. What ties these themes together is the battle of good and evil. Since the focus is on Izzy and her mother, our instinct is to divide them into protagonist and antagonist. From the beginning, Izzy is posed as the protagonist, being trapped on her family property and suffering from chronic illness. Although we want to cheer for her, as the film progresses, the dynamic between her and her mother becomes complicated, shifting the scales of good and evil and ultimately showing that neither character can be so easily boxed. The skillfully written development of the women was refreshing.

Through exciting visuals, a twisting plot, and nuanced characters, Hellbender takes the viewer on a wild ride. Although I saw some hints of Carrie in it, the film is thoroughly original. I recommend catching it when it premieres on Shudder this Thursday, February 24, 2022.

 

Amanda Nevada DeMel is a born-and-raised New Yorker, though she currently lives in New Jersey. Her favorite genre is horror, thanks to careful cultivation from her father. She especially appreciates media that can simultaneously scare her and make her cry. Amanda also loves reptiles, musicals, and breakfast foods.

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When You Need a Scary Movie That’s Actually Scary: ‘Terrified’

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Horror fans are constantly searching for a horror movie that will scare them. Predictability is one of the major culprits of the dilution of horror in horror films. Many of us feel it has already been done and then gets redone ad infinitum. There tends to be a format that scary movies follow, making it so that even new films don’t feel new. And those that try to differ from this pit of repetition tend to find themselves so far on the fringes that the work doesn’t translate well to general audiences.

The film Terrified on Shudder is widely regarded as one of the best that the horror platform offers, and with good reason. With its continuous sequences of pure nightmare fuel, there is no telling what will happen from one minute to the next. As the mystery unfolds, the terror only rises until reaching a crescendo of full-on calamity. Through the perspectives of numerous characters, Terrified tells a chilling story that doesn’t let up, even after it’s over. If you want a scary movie to watch, Terrified is objectively it.

A Unique Story Structure Created a Great Horror Film

The way the movie opens immediately lets viewers know something otherworldly is happening. The story follows the paranormal experiences of different people in a small place in Buenos Aires and the ensuing investigation into these experiences.

The way Terrified tells its tale is one thing that makes it stand out among other horror movies. The story unravels in a way that makes it feels like everyone is the main character, thus making all their experiences feel much more personal and horrific. It’s difficult to know whom we’re supposed to be paying the closest attention to, so we pay more attention to everyone, magnifying the horror. Additionally, numerous storylines take place all at once, causing a total onslaught of tragedy and horror sequences in a way that makes complete sense. The storyline also stood out for the fluid timeline as frequent time jumps occur.

Time Flies When You’re Terrified

Just as a character remarks in the film, time moves differently here. The constant action-packed sequence of events that unfolds creates a sense of time distortion where minutes fly by. This is because viewers’ brains are working overtime to process everything they’ve just seen – the ramifications of what they’ve witnessed while simultaneously being thrust into a new scenario, a new horror, another tragedy. The way everything is presented, one gruesome moment after another, it’s like your brain doesn’t even have time to fully process the last haunting images you saw before you’re grappling with another three. The haunting imagery in this film is unrelenting.

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What Makes This Scary Movie Worth the Watch

What’s a scary motion picture without some haunting imagery? When it comes to Terrified, take your pick. A monster under the bed, footprints that travel up walls, and head-turning corpses are only some of this film’s spooky visuals.

The movie uses some gore but does not lean on it to be scary. Likewise, the film doesn’t rely on jump scares, but they are sweat-inducingly effective when they inevitably do happen.‘

Yet, all of this is not where the true terror of Terrified lies.

Maybe it’s because your brain doesn’t have time to process every event before another happens. Perhaps it’s the strange event sequencing, how time jumps back and forth. Maybe it’s the way that everyone is the main character, so the thought of anyone being safe from the events about to unfold feels dismal. Perhaps it’s the onslaught of horrific imagery. Whatever the case, Terrified excels as a horror movie because it sticks with you after it’s over.

Given the depiction of back-to-back tragedies, the film is immediately rewatchable because it all happens quickly. The way this film can balance so much going on at once without ever feeling sloppy, cluttered, or difficult to follow is an impressive feat. Doubly impressive are the nightmarish images that leave a lasting impact. However, it cannot go without saying that these same images may have been washed out in a lesser horror film had it followed the typical storyline format. Director Demián Rugna’s unique approach to storytelling created an action-packed unpredictable tale that makes this movie so recommendable. If you haven’t seen this film before, it’s time. If you have seen it, you’re probably due for a rewatch.

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Stream Terrified on Shudder today!

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‘M3GAN’ Review: M0th3r Has Arrived

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Load up those gifs and ready your fingertips because a new horror icon has landed.

She’s M3gan, but after a viral marketing campaign that had everyone, including your favorite aunt, calling her “Mother,” you already knew that. Directed by Gerard Johnstone (Housebound), with a story by Malignant duo James Wan and Akela Cooper (who also penned the script), this meme has quite the pedigree. The hype train is real, and while M3GAN does an excellent job at sprinkling in iconic moments and one-liners while maintaining a relatable thematic throughline, it does so at the expense of a compelling plot. Its charm, however, is that despite containing story beats you can clock by watching the trailer, M3GAN is simply too much fun to care.

The film follows newly orphaned Cady (Violet McGraw, a young Daveigh Chase doppelgänger) as she goes to live with her quintessentially millennial aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a brilliant roboticist working at a toy company. Parenting does not come naturally to the detached and overworked Gemma. So, in the only way she knows, Gemma pawns off the responsibility of helping Cady cope with the death of her parents – as well as conveniently enacting live-in nanny status – to her passion project, the true to size and pussy bow-clad AI companion M3gan. Her plan works until it doesn’t, and everything goes gloriously haywire. If you think you’ve seen it before, you almost certainly have, but this familiar story is in drag.

Those memes were not a fluke, and she’s here to make it clear: M3gan cuts deep. She knows just what to say to make you second guess everything you’ve ever done, and her one-two punch carries enough whiplash to leave you in a coma or worse. She’s a dancer, a singer, a quadrupedal runner, a killer, and a friend. The film’s fusion of practical effects and CGI brings M3gan to life just short of Avatar photorealism, and voice actor Jenna Davis – no stranger to going viral – has mastered the art of feigned innocence. Gemma, M3gan’s creator and rival, does her best at holding her ground against the doll as they vie for Cady’s affection. Williams has snagged another significant horror role, playing the worst millennial you’ll ever meet (Marnie from Girlsincluded) as the Cindy Lauper of Dr. Frankensteins – she just wants kids to have fun. And while M3GAN is relatively low on actual horror stakes, one scene during the film’s climax sees the pair facing off at the dining table in a moment fraught with genuine tension.

Given that M3GAN’s actual Dr. Frankensteins are behind Malignant and Housebound, it’s no surprise that dark comedy is its greatest asset. It is deadly unserious most of the time. When your grin might begin to lose grip, M3gan sings an acapella lullaby of David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” or casually flings her latest victim’s ear over her shoulder. The laughs are a mixture of camp, subtle, and satirical. Lazy parenting, suburban living, and the carelessness of technological advancement are all up for grabs, and no collectible toy is safe from Allison Williams’ scissors.

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It is to Akela Cooper’s credit that M3GAN can bob and weave through such a riotous tale of a killer doll while not losing focus on its ideas about our unhealthy digital reliance and even poignantly touching upon childhood grief. As if the projectionist accidentally spliced in some Saturday morning cartoons, M3GAN opens with a commercial for the fictional “Purrpetual Petz,” a traditionally annoying toy not unlike Furbys of the 1990s. This idea of a forever companion, whether in the form of an exotic creature, a 4’4” sassy android, or even an iPad, informs our prevalent lack of connection to other humans. Whether used as a means to avoid reality or as parenting by proxy, M3gan is that digital crutch personified. Before you know it, she’s an inseparable “part of the family.” What happens when we lose that connection to our versions of M3gan? If Cady’s actions are anything to go by, we become indignant Veruca Salts of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory fame. Cooper isn’t exaggerating, that’s for sure.

However, this wild ride has pitfalls. If you were to de-drag M3GAN, the film’s bones are that of your stereotypical January throw-away horror flick. There’s no guessing how it will play out – although one of its final scenes does include a nice nod to Aliens – and while I enjoyed myself, I did not leave the theater absolutely gagging as expected. When the action hits its stride, and a lovely needle drop begins the third act, M3GAN does not go as hard as I hoped. I hate to add fire to the flames, but while there are fantastic PG-13 horror films, one as biting as M3GAN deserves a hard R rating. In fact, in a recent LA Times interview, Cooper let the cat out of the bag and said the film had been edited down to PG-13 after its marketing went viral and the suits wanted to cash in on the TikTok crowd. It’s a shame because as M3gan devolves into a sadistic killer, that cold AI side of her gets very dark and twisty.

M3gan’s dark side definitely ponders her existential Westworld fantasy throughout the film’s runtime. While Child’s Play is the obvious comparison point, I could not help but find some Jurassic Park philosophizing in there as well. The unintended consequences of our creations through state-of-the-art technology feel like a not-so-distant reality. We may not see dinosaurs in our lifetime, but Teslas are combusting on the streets as you read this, and we have created innate digital addiction as a disease of the human race. On a macro level, we could bring about the End Times as we are all dramatically slayed by agile android dolls. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Ultimately, M3GAN succeeds in so many ways that it deserves its time in the sun. It may not be the taut techno-thriller of your dreams, but it’s a great way to ring in horror for 2023. Most will know if the film’s humor is for them after one glance at its trailer and marketing, and if you’re on the fence, just dive in. At best, you’ll cackle along with the crowd, and at worst, you’ll probably install one of those screen time management apps on your phone. There is, of course, a wink toward a potential sequel by its conclusion and one unresolved plot thread that would allow a revisit to expand upon the film’s themes in a big way. Plus, there’s the inevitable M3gan/Chucky/Esther/Annabelle pint-sized villain throwdown event the powers-that-be would be fools to ignore.

Spoiler Alert: M3gan would end them.

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Make sure you watch the trailer for M3gan below.

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