Monday, December 23, 2013
The Cinema File #290: "Hellbenders" Review
Though I’m not personally faithful, I’ve always been fascinated by the mystery and mysticism surrounding organized religion. The ancient liturgy and institutionalization of magical thinking is the closest thing we have in real life to the sort of secret archives of wizardry seen in works of literary and cinematic fantasy, and the idea that creatures and spells of myth and legend exist today in some form is naturally intriguing to the nerdy Terry Pratchett kid inside me. The complicated and sometimes dark history of the church, particularly the Catholic Church, only adds to the fun of this trope, lending just enough credibility to tales of Da Vinci Code style conspiracy theory and the horrors of exorcism and demonic possession. It’s a subject tailor made for entertaining fiction precisely because it is so fantastical and yet purported to be completely true.
Inspired by the writer/director’s own graphic novel and not to be confused with a short-lived web cartoon, Hellbenders is the story of a secret interfaith council of ordained priests who battle the forces of darkness with the unique tactic of applied damnation. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity, that if a demon possessing a human victim cannot be exorcised through any of the normal means, a last ditch “nuclear option” can be enacted in which the exorcist invites the demon into his or her own body, and then kills himself, dragging both his soul and the demon back to Hell. The only catch of course is that for the priest to do this, he or she must be “damnation ready” leading a life of regular sin and debauchery in order to transform a human soul into the demonic equivalent of cement shoes.
Hellbenders is The Exorcist meets Ghostbusters as written by a 25% less clever Kevin Smith. It hits that weird sweet spot of dark humor and inspired silliness, occasionally coming off as too crude for the sake of being crude, but in a context where that sort of excess is the most forgivable. The premise alone is so novel that it’s a wonder it’s never been thought of before, though in practice it’s somewhat reminiscent of Hellblazer, the comic book most well known for its protagonist, the wandering moral reprobate John Constantine. If I could point to one big problem with the film, it is that like Hellblazer, one character outshines everyone else in the story, while unlike Hellblazer, Hellbenders is actually trying to be an ensemble. Then again, it’s pretty hard to upstage Clancy Brown, especially when he’s given a role as cantankerous as the foul mouthed Angus, and his presence alone is enough to justify the ticket price.
Somewhat lower on the scale of major problems is the scope, which feels a little stifled considering the cosmic implications of the plot. This feels like a movie that really needed a bigger budget than it had, and while I’ve never read the original graphic novel, I can only assume that short of Brown’s performance, it probably works a lot better on the page where anything and everything can be depicted with no additional cost. The supernatural elements are well done, particularly an extended sequence in a basement that sets up the main conflict of the film, but this and many other scenes just scream for the kind of prosthetic and CGI work that so many worse written films are able to take for granted. Being a modern-day dark fantasy comedy with religious overtones, it kept putting me in mind of Dogma, one of my favorite movies, and as a result I was constantly waiting for something as memorable as the giant Shit Monster, but regrettably, it never came.
Even so, my hope for the equivalent of animated humanoid feces notwithstanding, Hellbenders is the kind of low budget movie that really rewards a love of fringe cinema. You probably won’t ever see it in a theater near you, and for the most part it will probably fade away for all but the most willing and committed enough to seek it out. I can’t say it’s so self-evidently great as to be guaranteed a future of cult status, and in a marketplace suffering from a glut of entertainment options, it’s hard to predict whether it will ever break through an over-saturation of crap to reach all the people who would be inclined to watch a movie as ambitiously niche, but it certainly deserves whatever exposure it gets, and I’m happy to do my part. If you happen to see it at your video story or on VOD and you have a suitable lack of sacred cows to enjoy it, definitely give Hellbenders a chance.