Saturday, June 25, 2022

Hellbenders

 Hellbenders is a gleefully blasphemous horror comedy about a bunch of warrior exorcist priests -the Augustine order of hellbound saints- who commit to a regime of sins to make their souls attractive to  demons; they're basically waking honeypot operations to draw out spirits from their possessed victims. And, as a last resort, they train to kill themselves so they'll take the demon back to hell with them.
 For a little bit during the introduction it looks like the movie is going to be a bit too much -too in your FACE- but luckily the aggressive tone is scaled back somewhat. Some creative cursing, fun character work and some very good jokes pick up the slack and help make up for the very low budget and sometimes meandering plot.

 The Hellbound Saints live together in a New York apartment and are a fairly varied bunch of mostly likeable assholes. The movie gets a lot of comic mileage out of how sinning is basically in these folk's job description- one of them carries a ledger of misdeeds around, and keeps nagging them on how they're falling behind on their unholy quota. The nature of the sins themselves is sometimes suspect -an arbitrary slap counts as Wrath, for example- but I guess you need to hold back a little if you want anyone to root for your characters... and it also pokes funs at bible literalism (at one point someone says something along the lines of 'don't come to me with those bullshit Leviticus sins', which made me laugh.) Also, this is the sort of movie that falls apart under any close scrutiny, so it's better to just go along.
 Which brings us to the plot. It's ok, serviceable: an ancient god is trying to open a gate to hell just as the Hellbenders are being audited by an (understandably) unsympathetic church servant. There are some documentary-type asides, which do serve a purpose, but one of the characters is introduced talking to the camera for a scene, and never does it again. Other than that the dialog is sharp (if  juvenile), and there are a lot of cool concepts and weirdness thrown into the mix. In the end there's too little heft and detail to the fight against demon/god Surtr to really carry the movie, but it allows for a lot of fun character moments and bloody exorcisms.
 The whole endeavor has a sort of puerile energy that I found very easy to like, and unlike the vast majority of similar films it doesn't push its lore upon you. There's no pace-killing glut of exposition (hello Nekrotronic!) and it doesn't feel like it's trying to set up a franchise or a string of sequels. It's slight to a fault, it's never scary, and it doesn't really pull off a satisfying finale, but that's fine. It's a great little goofy blasphemous lark.



 The humor doesn't wholly come from inventive swears and casual blasphemy. A weird aside to why there aren't any classic superheroes called Clint gets a killer, flamboyantly delivered punchline for example, and some of the jokes and jargon are relatively deep theology or occult cuts: Besides the previously mentioned Leviticus dig, for example, I got a chuckle out of the auditor being revealed as a member of the Opus Dei and the crew's reaction to that. It's... a weird movie, and a game cast led by the redoubtable and stentorious Clancy Brown really elevate it.

 Writer / Director J T Petty does a pretty great job on both counts with a tiny budget; Between this, Mimic 3 (way better than it had any right to be), and The Burrowers (highly recommended) he's more than proven to be worth following; It's a shame he hasn't been able to make more movies.

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