Everything about Hellbenders screamed hidden gem, but its low ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes may be a little too high.
There’s nothing like a good horror-comedy; sadly, Hellbenders is nothing like a good horror-comedy. Written and directed by J.T. Petty, adapting his own graphic novel, the 2012 film depicts an earthly war between the worst demons imaginable and the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints. In this battle between good and evil, some demons are just too deplorable for a run-of-the-mill exorcist carrying a crucifix and a bible. These cases require holy men and women who live in a constant state of sin and debauchery and are willing to ride those monsters back to Hell by ending their exorcisms with an act of suicide. It’s an intriguing concept ripe with possibilities to skewer piety while seeing how far the boundaries of the antihero mystique can be pushed. Unfortunately, that potential is the only thing that keeps you watching.
The potential isn’t limited to the premise; there’s also a promising cast. The great Clancy Brown, a formidable screen presence who intimidated audiences as the heavy in Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption and Carnivàle, plays Angus, the lead holy debaucher keeping order through might and fear. He keeps track of the sins the other members of his order to ensure their descent when the time comes to fulfill their sacred duty. Drop below a certain number of sins per month and you’ll hear from Angus. He is the grizzled veteran almost happy that the apocalypse is nigh so he can complete his mission. It’s the sort of role that Brown could make memorable, but the role, like the movie, is underdeveloped, straining for little more than jokes about drugs and sodomy. I know, you’re thinking “who doesn’t like drugs and sodomy jokes?” and I would counter that those are merely two flavors on the comedy palate that grow tiresome by the 10th time around.
Veteran character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. plays Lawrence, Angus’ heir apparent. He’s having trouble keeping up with his sins while his marriage crumbles and his feelings grow for compatriot Elizabeth (Robyn Rikoon). Things get complicated when Elizabeth fails to expel Surtr, the bringer of Ragnarok. She is going to bring about the end of the world, but Lawrence won’t give up on her despite the demands of the order. Collins uses every opportunity to employ a trademark, hangdog expression to make his drunken dissatisfaction and yearning plain, but his other abilities go unutilized. And then there is Andre Royo as Stephen, one of Angus’ lieutenants who is trying to keep the order together even when the church wants to shut them down. Royo is best known for his magnetic performance as recovering drug addict Bubbles on “The Wire” and the fact that he has so little to do as Stephen is astounding. In fact, in a movie concerned with sin, its prime blasphemy is wasting the considerable talents of its phenomenal cast.
According to his filmography and publishing record, Petty is a horror enthusiast, but Hellbenders is a jumble in tone and aesthetic. For a horror-comedy it is neither scary nor funny, existing in a liminal space of mediocre streaming content. If it lacked Brown, Collins and Royo on its marketing material it would be just another thumbnail in the horror section on Prime defined solely by its category. Part mockumentary, part standard horror fair, Petty can’t decide if he’s making a statement or a parody. You keep waiting for something to happen, but that moment never comes, which is a pity. When rolling through Streaming Hell it’s best to keep your expectations low and your hopes waist high, but this one disappointed more than most. Everything about it screamed hidden gem, but its low ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes may be a little too high.