Dir. and Written by J.T. Petty
Starring Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr, Andre Royo, Robyn Rikoon, Macon Blair, Dan Fogler, Larry Fessenden
HELLBENDERS is a high-concept horror-comedy about an elite team of ex-religious officials who live in a funky hipster commune and fight demonic possession. Kind of like GHOSTBUSTERS if instead of blue-collar schmos, they were all barely socially functional indie hipster assholes who cannot for the life of them stop bantering for even a single second, otherwise all will be lost.
That sounds somewhere between homicidally irritating and annoyingly charming (and it usually shakes out somewhere between those two), but, you ask, where is the high concept in that? Well, the twist is that in order to do their demon-exorcising job properly, they have to be prepared to kill themselves and drag the demon to hell with them, as a last resort. This is a problem, though, due to the fact that hunting demons kinda automatically puts you on God’s side, and makes it hard to talk your way past the bouncers into hell. To remedy this awkward situation, our heroes have to make sure they’re constantly sinning all the time, so their souls are so fundamentally tainted that there’s no possibility even of a deathbed last rites to bail them out. This means they have to spend most of their off-time smoking weed, fucking each other, lying, stealing, masturbating, getting wasted, and living a generally debaucherous lifestyle like it’s their job. At first it seems like pretty good work if you can get it, but apparently Heaven’s standards are laxer than I seem to recall from my tenure in Catholic school, and sinning enough to guarantee an eternity of torment ends up being kind of an exhausting full-time job.
This is all very cute, and for awhile it’s pretty amusing, thanks mostly to the great comic cast assembled by director J.T. Petty (the surprisingly good MIMIC 3, S&MAN, THE BURROWERS):Clancy Brown (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE LITTLE MERMAID 2: RETURN TO THE SEA) is aces as the grizzled straight man and the group’s leader, Clifton Collins Jr, (TRAFFIC, CAPOTE) has some dry one-liners as the disillusioned leading man, and Andre Royo (Bubs from The Wire!), Macon Blair (BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM), Dan Fogler (FANBOYS, EUROPA REPORT) and Robyn Rikoon (COLD WEATHER) all have fun as the schlubby, filthy-mouthed backup. The setup has an agreeably 90’s indie movie hangout vibe (something of a rarity in a 2012 release), which really means one thing: an ensemble of hungry young actors trying to deliver as many hip, self-consciously filthy quips to each other as they can manage, as fast as they can manage, complimented by today’s edgiest, most affordable indie hits and some powerfully indifferent camerawork. You know, like Tarantino, or (once upon a time) Kevin Smith! Except not as good! Like all the movies of that ilk (everything from SUICIDE KINGS to TAINTED to FROM DUSK TIL DAWN) it’s nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is (or as filthy as it thinks it is, incidentally; these guys talk a big game about sinning, but they never seem to actually get around to doing it on camera), but it’s still probably clever enough to get by, most of the time.
Trouble starts to set in as the plot does, which is fortunately a good way into the movie. There’s some horsehit about a prophecy, one of our guys becomes a vessel for a demon apocalypse, and everyone else has to reluctantly rally to save the world. Also, this movie’s version of William Atherton from GHOSTBUSTERS (Steven Gevedon, SESSION 9) steps in to shut our boys down with his bureaucracy and rules, because fuck the man. You can tell how little investment Petty has in the whole end-of-the-world thing by juxtaposing it with the amount of effort that goes into this competing subplot, which occupies roughly an equivalent amount of screentime, though frankly it’s so rote that it’s only a little more lively. But at least our boys get to yell and curse more for that, which is really more of the movie’s speed.
Eventually, everything has to escalate to a big set piece, by which time most of the film’s initial charm has dissipated, and so have all its good ideas, and so --from the look at the astonishingly chintzy CG-- has the budget. That’s the problem with these high-concept horror films; sometimes the people making them forget that beyond a concept, you actually have to make a film. Silly as it is, there was real potential here, both as a dirty-minded comedy and a darkly comic horror film, but neither really pans out in the end. It's not imaginative enough to wring much juice from its stock apocalyptic climax, and --even more damning-- for a movie which mostly gets by on the charm of its characters, it also can't think of much for most of them to do as things drag on. It wants to be an outrageous cult movie, but alas (as we so often learn), that’s not really the kind of thing you can manufacture; you’ve got to be genuinely demented to create something genuinely offensive. Petty’s come up with a workable premise here, but he needed someone a little less responsible to run with it, someone who had some genuinely subversive ideas beyond having Clancy Brown yell “Cocksucker” a lot. Still, the film has its moments, especially in the first half. And I did note a couple coming-atcha’ moments which were probably a hoot in the original 3D, including a ridiculous sub-Sega-Saturn-level CG hell-vagina, (which is definitely trying too hard, but still, at least it’s trying). And hey, they got Larry Fessenden in there in a small role, so they know what Papa likes. Petty remains a director with enough clever tricks to get me excited about his next movie, but so far he’s mostly been too clever for his own good, sacrificing solid meat and potatoes genre filmmaking for meta (and potatoes?) tomfoolerly. A good side dish, but not much of a main course. HELLBENDERS is the perfect embodiment of a high-concept genre film which is all dressed up, but forgot to think of a place to go.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
Deliver Us To Evil and the much better They’re Going To Hell So We Don’t Have To
Unfortunately not a movie about those awesome Hellbender salamanders; I think they explain the concept somewhere in there but it’s a pretty iffy explanation anyway.
It’s supposedly based on a graphic novel also written by Petty?
None, although I must confess I’d probably watch it, especially if someone with a little more interest in whammy directed it.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA, mostly shot in Brooklyn
None of these guys quite hit the A-list, but Brown and Collins have both been in big prestigious Hollywood productions in smaller roles.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Clancy Brown, Larry Fessenden, and I’d say Macon Blair is starting to get there after this, GREEN ROOM, and MURDER PARTY.
Seems like there would be some in something like this, but IMDB keywords does not return any results for “female nudity” and they’re usually very thorough about these things. Then again, one review claims it’s rated R for “full nudity,” so who knows? I don’t even notice anymore.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Some creepy basement dolls
Yeah, I mean, there aren’t any robes or anything but there’s definitely a prophecy and stuff, so I think that counts.
People get all demon-looking when possessed
None that stood out
MORAL OF THE STORY
I guess that old gypsy lady that dragged Alison Lohman to Hell really had to put in a much longer ground game than it looked like in the movie if she wanted to pull that maneuver off.