Hellbender: meet the family metal band who made one of 2022's coolest horror movies on a shoestring budget in lockdown

The Adams Family / Wonder Wheel Productions
(Image credit: Wonder Wheel Productions / The Adams Family)

This year, horror streaming service Shudder added Hellbender to their ranks, a low-budget, phenomenally-crafted, award-winning film made in 2021 by a family of horror filmmakers and musicians under the name of Wonder Wheel Productions.

Composed of Toby Poser, John Adams and daughters Lulu and Zelda Adams, Wonder Wheel Productions, also known as The Adams Family, together form the darkly atmospheric metal band Hellbender (H6llb6nd6r), who share their title with the aforementioned film. 

Hellbender is a spell-binding folk horror tour de force that affixes the supernatural with heavy music in a groundbreaking new light. It's spotlighted by wondrously cinematic scenes shot near the family's home in the picturesque Catskills in New York, creating a serene landscape for a pandemic-ridden world, matched with a killer soundtrack made by the Hellbender band, who also feature as part of the film’s narrative. 

Within the film, Toby, who plays Mother, and daughter Zelda, who plays the role of Izzy, together write loud rock songs from their secluded mountainous home. While the young girl dreams of taking their music to the stage, the mother forbids it; Izzy is "sick" and can’t be around other people, it seems. After a chance encounter with a neighbouring teen, Izzy soon discovers her family’s dark history and her ties to witchcraft, unveiling her true form of “a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator”.

The film’s formation was also extraordinary, spurred on by Toby Poser’s discovery on her mother's deathbed of being conceived by a sperm donor. “What if our biology is a mystery? And what if its truth is concealed because it’s not pretty. It’s dark. Bloody,” the film’s official press release reads. 

To find out more about Hellbender and the creative polymaths behind it, we spoke to parents Toby and John about everything from gigging in New York with their kids to the influential magic of the great outdoors.

Metal Hammer line break

What made you want to get into film-making?

Toby: “We were living in California and we just decided to screw school and jobs. We thought ‘let's just hit the road for a year, we'll school the kids and let's try to make a film’. So we did and we were sold.”

Was it always a shared passion within the family?

John: “I think we all wanted to make movies together. The kids watched the vampire movie Twilight, and wanted to be Bella. And so Zelda was five/six years old, and Lulu was ten. At the time I was working on a rock’n’roll tv show [Rock And Roll Acid Test] and Toby had just wrapped up some acting work, and so we all kind of dreamt of making a film on our own, and it came together at the same time. The girls wanted to do it. We wanted to do it. So we just took a chance to see how hard it was. And we all fell in love with it.”

What themes inspire your work?

Toby: “We moved out of the city several years ago and now we live upstate in the Catskill Mountains of New York, so nature informs all of our work. It features especially in Hellbender; the idea of cycles and everything being consumed by everything. It also has the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality, something that gives but also takes, something that brings life but kills, eating and being eaten. Nature is just the ultimate horror narrative.”

John: “And we love the idea of hidden magic, like we love camping. We love being out in the world and seeing such beautiful things like colourful mushrooms or weird looking algae or, even the clouds rolling in and it's like, there's so much magic out there that a lot of us humans don't know how to harness. So we love telling stories about the people that do or the people that have turned their back on that magic. It's really a fun thing.”

Is there much conflict working within a family dynamic?

Toby: “It’s pretty great and pretty easy. And sometimes I think people think we're full of shit when we say that. But the truth is, it doesn't take a lot of effort to stop before things reach a place of challenge or contention. We've been doing this for 12 years now, and we've kind of just learned how to dance with each other. So it's wonderful more than anything else.”

John: “Lucky advantages are also that we’re self financed and self produced. We make things pretty cheaply. And so there's nobody looking over our shoulder telling us when something has to be done. So if we don't like the way a song sounds or a shot looks, we just keep recording/filming it until we like it. That's the advantage of being this tiny little unit. Nobody's rushing us, so we don't have to fight about stuff.”

You’ve made dramas in the past, but what’s your favourite genre of film? Are we right in thinking it’s horror?

John: “100%. I don't think we'll ever go back. Once we made our first horror movie we realised all the artistic creativity we are allowed, like musically, visually storytelling wise. The horror community is wonderful and wildly educated in art. And so we've learned so much from the higher crowd about storytelling, about cinematography, about music, it's just a great community to be a part of. And stylistically, it took everything we loved about drama, and just made it so much more.”

What was it like filming Hellbender during the pandemic?

John: “We had a bigger production. We were going to shoot in our town in a school with a bunch of people and then COVID hit and life got cancelled. And so as brutal as COVID was for the world and for us, we hit the road in a small trailer, and America was empty and so it kind of made our life kind of easy. Everywhere we went we had it all to ourselves. No cops, no problems. Nothing. Except for me, Toby, Zelda and Lulu.”

How did Hellbender, the band, begin?

John: “So when Lulu was eight years old, she saw me perform when I was in a band called Banana Fish Cereal. She wanted to be in one too, so together we started a band called The Hot Roses and played in New York City. And we did that for a while. We had this great little thing and it was so magic, and people would come to our shows. I would jam riffs on my guitar and she would make shit up on the spot and she was quite good at it. And she did that for a while until one day she quit. And then Zelda said she wanted to be in the band and play drums. And so we had to change the name from the Hot Roses, to Kid California. Eventually she wanted to get out from behind the drums and start singing, so that's when Hellbender started. Then Lulu started singing again and Toby started singing and so we really became back to a family band. That's when we all really started doing it all together.”

What comes first, the music or the film and how do they connect?

John: “It's really fun to write for movies. So with Hellbender, it was all about blood and the fear of it, as well as loneliness and lying. And what's so fun about music and imagery is taking what we write before we film a movie, about 10 to 20 songs beforehand, and then throwing the music on the images to see how it feels. It's such a fun experience to see which images dance with which music.”

Toby: “With Hellbender, as far as the music goes, I think it was just another way of spellcasting. You know, you've got these two lonely women on a mountaintop. For me it was like our version of Merlin on the mountaintop, whipping up his sorcery. I think music in our films, particularly Hellbender, is just another form of magic. The music is another way of exploring the storyline; the narrative belongs to what's going on in the music and the lyrics are always just an undercurrent of what's actually happening between the characters.”

What bands inspire you?

John: “All four of us sit around and talk about music so much together. For example, when we were making Hellbender, Zelda really loved listening to Courtney Barnett a lot and Billie Eilish. Lulu has always been turning us on to the heavy stuff like Fu Manchu, like real stoner rock. She loves Queens Of The Stone Age and Slow Mosa. For me, besides Black Flag, Black Sabbath was another band that changed my life. Somebody played me Masters Of Reality and suddenly I didn't want to play soccer anymore. I wanted to be in a band. Toby likes Nick Cave like she's always bringing in Nick Cave, because his music is so great. It's so cinematic.”

Toby:  “And he's a great poet. I love poetry. But I also love listening to Big Business and the Melvins.”

How do you feel about the horror renaissance that’s happening in the film industry right now?

Toby: “First of all, I'm thrilled. And second of all, I think that people perhaps aren't as tender as they were. And historically people love Halloween. Autumn is incredible, it’s all about a beautiful, beautiful death, especially if you're in a place where you're lucky enough to see the leaves change. You're celebrating death in its full fiery glory. And I think that part is like that. I think people just don't acknowledge it very often. They like being scared, they like feeling their heart quicken. And so I think maybe more people are just getting in touch.”

What’s next?

John: “Our latest movie, called Where The Devil Roams, is almost done editing, and one of the things that we wanted to do for it was have a more homogenous band sound for the whole movie. All of Hellbender’s music is kind of eclectic, like there's like an acoustic song and a heavy fuzz song, but this time we're taking that further and trying to drive it into doom metaI.”

Hellbender is available to stream now on Shudder or can be rented or purchased through Amazon Prime Video.

Liz Scarlett

Liz works on keeping the Louder sites up to date with the latest news from the world of rock and metal. Prior to joining Louder as a full time staff writer, she completed a Diploma with the National Council for the Training of Journalists and received a First Class Honours Degree in Popular Music Journalism. She enjoys writing about anything from neo-glam rock to stoner, doom and progressive metal, and loves celebrating women in music.