Fantasia Fest 2021: Hellbender interview with Toby Poser and John & Zelda Adams

Hellbender - Courtesy of Wonder Wheel Productions
Hellbender - Courtesy of Wonder Wheel Productions /

Hellbender is a family-focused folk horror nightmare that debuted at Fantasia Fest 2021. The movie stars Toby Poser and Zelda Adams, and was created by Toby, Zelda, and John Adams. The family film comes from Wonder Wheel Productions, the family-run production company founded by Poser and Adams and their children, Zelda and Lulu. Lulu Adams also stars in the film.

You might have previously watched their award-winning movie The Deeper You Dig, which screened at Fantasia 2019. Hellbender is the sixth overall feature from the company and was recently acquired by Shudder for a 2022 debut.

**SPOILER WARNING: There are some spoilers for the film Hellbender in the interview.**

The film stars Zelda as 16-year-old Izzy, a young girl suffering from a rare illness. Her mother (Poser) has kept Zelda secluded on an isolated mountaintop her entire life, but Izzy starts to question her confinement when she meets and secretly befriends a local girl named Amber (Lulu).

Not long after forging her new friendship, Izzy accidentally awakens a dark hunger inside her and must learn about the dark secrets residing in her family to understand the hunger bubbling up inside.

Discussing Hellbender with the cast & crew behind the movie Toby Poser, John Adams, and Zelda Adams.

1428 Elm: It’s kind of funny that I watched your movie right after watching Fantasia’s folk horror documentary. I feel like your film fits right into that genre, was that intentional?

John Adams: Yes, we learned about folk horror. I think it was Fantasia. Justine, from Fantasia, was basically schooling us, in a nice way, about folk horror. We got really interested and started watching all these folk horror movies like The Wicker Man.

Toby Poser: We love folk horror.

John: So yes, very cool for you to bring that up.

1428 Elm: I thought it was timely because of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, and it’s like a three-hour documentary about folk horror, and I was like, wow, Hellbender would fit right into that if it had come out earlier. Along those lines, were you guys inspired by any specific myths or legends?

Toby: I love doing research for anything. Whether we use it or not, I find it’s always good for inspiration. I was really interested in the legend of Lilith and the first woman Eve and also especially the idea of the ouroboros with the whole regeneration and spring eats winter, winter eats fall, etc.

So that was for me that was a fun thing to study, and once you start looking into that, it cracks open an endless world of fun inspiration about especially Adam and Eve and other takes on the Bible. Hellbender was an original thought for us, we didn’t go there, but it inspired us.

John: And also gnostic gospels and that thing what is evil and is evil bad?

1428 Elm: I loved the movie. I love anything that has to do with—I don’t know if they’re technically witches—but that vibe, paganism, and especially with women at the center, especially with Zelda, your character has this coming-of-age story, but it’s much darker than usual. I know you guys made this as a family, but what connected you to these characters?

Zelda Adams: Well, I’m coming of age myself, so it kind of just fit what I’m going through in life. Just finding out who I am.

John: Well, Zelda is always talking about wanting to be powerful and shows women and girls in the powerful light that they are.

Zelda: I think women are incredibly powerful, and some people find that intimidating, so it was really fun exploring that.

1428 Elm: What’s it like doing those scenes as a family, especially the violent, crazy stuff?

Zelda: Fun.

[All Laugh]

John: It’s so fun! The most violent scene is when our other daughter [Lulu Adams, who plays Amber] is split in half. That was a wonderful day because we shot it on the Pacific Northwest out on the beach because we needed the background blown out. But then the tide came out, and monster waves. We have some footage of Lulu getting swept out on the table because this huge wave came up. It was so fun.

Toby: And we were shooting in these insane old bunkers in Washington state, and they were dark and creepy. I mean, if there was ever a place that could be haunted, it was these bunkers with these ancient, rusted doors.

Zelda: And [Lulu] would have to be screaming, “help me! help!” and it would echo throughout the chambers. I’m sure other people heard it and were like, “what is going on over there?”

1428 Elm: Speaking of that, the final 15 minutes of Hellbender were just. My jaw dropped. It was so disturbing and so visceral. It definitely stuck with me, after which is saying something because I’ve seen a lot of horror. I was like, “this is so unnerving, in the best way.” I’m curious how you guys were able to navigate the effects because they look great, on a lower budget? 

John: The other part of our family is Trey Lindsay, who does the computer effects, and he’s just exceptional and a great friend of ours. He loves horror, and he’s a total nerd about everything horror. It’s just a joy to work with him and talk out what we want.

He always recommends we do as many organic effects as possible. We try to, when she basically crawls back through the umbilical cord, that’s organic, that’s something we made, but when we get in there, that’s when Trey starts to pick things up. It’s really a mix.

That’s what we talk about with Trey, like, “let’s make this look honest.” ‘Honest’ is the word we’re always using with Trey. He always sends us something completely outlandish like, “whoa!” but let’s make it look more like something we can afford. So, then he dials it back. He’s a great artist to work with, so he’ll be thrilled that you mentioned his effects.

1428 Elm: Because the ending was so impactful, how did you guys figure out the climax?

Zelda: We actually didn’t know the ending until we got to the end of filmmaking.

John: We talked it over and over. Zelda’s right. We didn’t know the ending. We kept talking through endings, and that last ending came up within minutes and went in and filmed it in the darkness.

Toby: We tried a bunch of different lines, we knew we wanted the final image that we had and did a couple takes of that, but the dialogue was kind of off the cuff.

John: We had written so many endings and talked about them, but the thing about when you go to a movie, you have to think about how you want the audience to leave. How do you want them to walk out? I think it was important to us that they walked out with a smile on their face but also thinking, “Holy crap! That was dark, but funny,” and I hope we achieved that.

1428 Elm: I think so, yeah! I know at the end, did you know which character would die and how the trajectory of Zelda’s character’s arc would play out? 

Toby: We knew that pretty early, and we knew we were going to be able to shoot with Lulu, who is our other daughter. So we knew I think we didn’t know she was going to be such an excellent victim [Laughs] she’d be laughing if you know Lulu she’s just a bolt of sunshine, but then she’d just get into character and [mimics crying], and we were just like, “Jesus!” [Laughs]

We knew we did want that, and we wanted an interesting axis like that character that Izzy, Zelda’s character could befriend and also hurt that’s something we definitely counted on.

1428 Elm: I know you guys said you enjoyed The Wicker Man but were there any other horror movies you were inspired by or really love in general?

Toby: I think Midsommar is something we all share.

John: It’s a very honest movie. There are not many effects, but it’s honest, extremely tense, and filled with paranoia.

Zelda: And also empowering.

Toby: Yeah, like the women, in the end, I mean to me, women come out on top in that film. And it’s something we did want to focus on in Hellbender. Zelda and I identify as females, but we wanted to give this brand of Hellbender that we created not necessarily a purely female identity but one that was anchored in extreme strength.

John: Another thing we wanted to do, like the whole intro into the movie. It’s a mob of women doing an old Western routine, and it was really fun to do that and start it by saying this is a movie about powerful women.

1428 Elm: I think that the opening scene sets the tone so well, especially the humorous direction it goes off in at the end that comes back throughout the film. 

John: Awesome, thank you.

Toby: Also, just to throw it in real fast, I love the idea; in the beginning, you see it a little better later in the flashbacks, but she’s sewing her mouth shut, and to me, that’s a really strong visual of women shutting their mouths and Zelda’s character saying, “no, I’m not sewing my mouth shut, screw that idea.” I wasn’t even sure that while we were doing it, I realized the profound nature of that image that I only grew to love more and more.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.