There’s always a certain amount of difficulty in reviewing films that have a history of behind-the-scenes drama and frustration surrounding it’s production and release. Of course, as an appreciator of the arts, there’s a side of me that has to side with the artist, especially when the art on display has such a promising and ingenious idea from which it was spawned. On the other hand, as a critic of film, I also must sympathize, to an extent, with the nature of the business itself, although when a risky original idea is presented, the aspect of blind faith will always reap some kind of consequence. So therefore, in order to be completely fair, both sides must be considered and the weight of the criticism has to come from the film itself, no matter who side I’d like to root for in any particular department. But at the same time, it’s important to consider that what is on the screen may not be the complete vision originally laid out by said artist, but rather the closest iteration of such in the conditions given.
In that regards, there is as much to praise about Lionsgate’s Hellbenders 3D as there is to be disappointed about, as the film itself presents so many great characters and ideas in a world that’s almost fully realized, yet misses the peak of the potential around every corner. Hellbenders 3D follows a group of “hellbound saints”, whose goal is to retain an overtly sinful lifestyle, so when it comes time to exorcise a demon, they can use their own body as a “last resort” vessel, commit suicide and drag the demon back to hell with their own soul. The premise gives way to a great horror-comedy mix, offering brutally violent and eerie moments of horror mixed in with over-the-top, character-appropriate humor. Unfortunately, however, the story itself gives way to an awkward sense of pacing and focus, rarely living up to the promise of what it could be, and much backstory and development is lost or outright ignored as the film crawls towards it’s predictable climactic confrontation.
The main problem with Hellbenders 3D may lie in its script, which never truly progresses organically and draws focus on an emotional character arc that’s never truly given enough attention or depth to truly connect to the audience, which is typical for a comedy but almost a fatal flaw for a horror film which relies on that investment to raise stakes. Director/Writer J.T. Petty establishes a really great universe but rarely builds upon that universe, choosing to loosely build a story around a team of which most is underutilized or rarely given a chance to shine in the alluded sinful glory. As opposed to a film like Ghostbusters, which relies on the horror and comedy to establish the team’s relationship and rapport, Petty instead chooses to assign each member a role as to the group’s functionality and never gives a character an incentive to branch out or a goal to achieve, which also undermines the central romance of the film as well. Petty knows how to write horror, as he does so well with the fruitful and gruesome villains at which he throws to the heroes, but by assigning the film the comedy status and following the rules of that genre in the pursuit of blasphemy-inspired laughs, there is much to be desired in the way of story structure.
Otherwise, technically-speaking, the film is quite impressive, with Brian Spears’ practical effects working much better than The Molecule’s digital effects, although in the native 3D shooting style does help to make the effects from both sides seem more realistic. The cinematography from genre veteran Ryan Samul is mostly wonderful, especially considering how often the perspective changes over the course of the story and the darkness-heavy set pieces. The score from Jeff Grace is also superb, appropriate for the atmosphere of the piece as a whole and elevating the gravitas which, in itself, strengthens the comedy moments. And although the script and focus of the film may be inconsistent and lacking, J.T. Petty’s direction of actors is well-utilized, making the most out of each actor even if the story doesn’t make the most out of each character.
The acting in a film like this is difficult to traditionally judge due to the constantly-changing themes and perspectives, as sometimes characters will break the fourth wall, sometimes characters are meant to have a dramatic bend to them and sometimes the character is merely a comedic device. As a whole, the acting is great, and the characters flourish when given the chance and provide, at the very least, a palpable chemistry between one another. Clancy Brown is nearly damn excellent as the seasoned leader of the group, Angus, even if his comically bent rants and threats are hit-or-miss and often times intentionally repetitive; it would have been great to learn more about the character’s past, even if the script wasn’t going to allow that to happen. Clifton Collins Jr. is also incredibly good in his role, selling the pain of the scary moments whilst carrying a healthy “fuck you” attitude through his comedic moments, and at the very least is consistent with his characters motivations and limitations throughout the film. Andre Royo, Macon Blair and Dan Fogler are wonderful in their caricature-esque roles, and even though their underutilized, the three help raise the group dynamic with undeniable enthusiasm and finesse. Furthermore, it’s great to see Larry Fessenden show up in another short-and-sweet role this year, as well as Stephen Gevedon as the group’s embittered foil. However, the true revelation of the film is the beautiful and crass Robyn Rikoon, who plays both victim and villain with a fascinating naturalism, making every moment of vulnerability or depravity seem substantial and appropriate to her character.
Overall, the problem with Hellbenders 3D is that the excellent premise is undone in this case by its own duality: by trying to be a conventional comedy and an unconventional horror story, the film winds up not necessarily fitting in either category. Marred by awkward pacing, an unfocused narrative and extraneous story structure, Hellbenders 3D should have been a success from the cast and horror direction alone, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Whether it was the production problems or the script problems that were the source of the film’s failures doesn’t matter, as in the end, the film’s detriments rarely are apparent within a singular department. Is the film fun? Sure, there’s a lot to love about Hellbenders 3D, particularly when the group is together and get funny or the exorcism scenes bring the creepiness in a big way. But the moments of horror are never engrossing, and the moments of fun don’t wash away the disappointment behind the bulk of the film. I’ll look forward to what J.T. Petty has lined up next, as the director is a truly imaginative talent, but let’s just hope next time there’s more in the way of minimalist and organic storytelling that Petty has worked marvels with earlier in his career.