Writer/Director: J.T. Petty
Starring: Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Larry Fessenden
Tagline: Deliver them to evil (There’s also “They’re going to hell so we won’t have to.” I picked the one I liked better to feature here.)
Description: The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, a team of blasphemous ministers who live in a constant state of debauchery, work to drag the worst of demons back to Hell. (From IMDb.)
So, hi guys! You might have noticed that my title up there says “Review” rather than “Recap,” and you might further be wondering what the hell I’m doing here, changing up formats and such. (Unless this is your first visit to this site and therefore you have no fucking clue what I’m blabbering about, in which case, Welcome! and how dare you accuse me of blabbering.) To which I respond that every now and then I watch a movie that I want to talk about, but don’t really have the desire to do a full recap of, for whatever reason. So, this marks the first time I’m going to attempt a review with more substance to it than what I write on Letterboxd, but less involved than a full recap. And you get to take this wild ride with me, as I work out all the kinks and bullshit! Lucky(???) you!
Note: because I’m me, there will definitely be spoilers ahead. There are movies/books I’ll review spoiler-free, but this ain’t one of them, y’all.
Overview (aka An Attempt at a (Mostly) Commentary-Free Summary):
First things first – like it says on the label, Hellbenders is a horror-comedy written and directed by J.T. Petty, about a group of priests/ministers (it says “interfaith” but seems to be run by the Catholic church, so color me confused already) who perform regular exorcisms but also live a life of sin to keep themselves ready for damnation on the off chance they meet an especially robust demon who can’t be exorcised. In that case, the plan is to invite the demon to possess them, then kill themself, dragging the demon to hell with them. It is, as they say, the nuclear option. (I already have thoughts, but this is my “no commentary” section. I will try my damnedest (ha!) to adhere to that.)
The group is led by Angus (Clancy Brown), whose main contribution to sin and debauchery seems to be an affinity for cursing that would keep the swear jar fully stocked until actual Armageddon. Next up is Larry (Clifton Collins Jr.), who is married and cheated on his wife only once, with Elizabeth, another of their rank. Elizabeth is the sole female Hellbender, and as she tells us, she’s a woman, so according to the Catholic church, everything she does is a sin. Stephen keeps track of everyone’s sins in a ledger, making sure they’re all “damnation ready,” and claims that only he and Angus are, although I have no idea what he’s done to deem himself so. That brings us to Macon, who is gay and therefore his mere existence is probably a sin in the Church’s eyes, and Eric, who is the most obvious neckbeard/incel I’ve seen in a while. (No commentary, no commentary . . . )
We’re introduced to the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints’ (aka the Hellbenders) style of exorcism, and the plot of the movie, when Angus and Larry are called to exorcise a rabbi buddy of theirs. After much fighting and attempted exorcism, the demon, who seems to really enjoy biting off fingers and toes, is finally exorcised after Angus blesses the water in the pipes and sets the sprinklers off. I suddenly find myself imagining what a team of exorcists with a fire truck could do.
Well, this demon turns out to be the lapdog of the Big Bad demon of this movie, who is actually the Norse god Surtr. Because, I mean . . . sure. Heyyy, you got your Ragnarok in my Armageddon! (aka One Man’s God is Another Man’s Demon.) Anyway, when Surtr comes, he’ll open up a portal to hell and burn the world down. Or something to that effect; you know the drill by now, I’m sure. However, through some study of the materials the rabbi was using to summon Surtr and ostensibly destroy him, Angus discovers that Surtr should have shown up on Earth thirty years ago. Whoops.
Ignorant of this fact, Elizabeth and Macon get called out to an exorcism of a “man-child” (alternately referred to as a “mongoloid,” which . . . yeesh, guys) who has been chained up in the basement of this apartment complex for the last twenty-nine years. Thinking this is just an ordinary exorcism, they do their thing, then take the iron collar inscribed with Norse runes off the guy to finish the exorcism. The demon, by the way, announces that he’s Surtr, but the Hellbenders clearly aren’t down with sharing important information with each other, so this means nothing to Macon or Elizabeth. Surtr possesses Macon, then the lady of the house, then finally settles on Elizabeth, who isn’t able to wrest control back to kill herself and drag the demon to hell with her. She also throws Macon off a bridge and into traffic, but don’t worry; he survives and spends the rest of the movie in a body cast at the parish rather than in the hospital. Hospitals are, apparently, Satan’s brothels. Finally, someone echoes what my hospital-centric anxiety has been telling me for years!
Larry goes to investigate just what the fuck happened; discovers that Surtr is now possessing their colleague; and pulls the collar with the Norse runes out of the trashcan on the street. Because, you know, it’s probably important and shit.
At the parish, some dude named Clint from the diocese (maybe? I think?) shows up threatening to shut them down, and Angus eventually informs everyone that shit is about to go down with Surtr because he’s going to open the portal to hell on Jesus’s birthday. Nobody knows what the fuck he’s talking about, because it’s currently April, but he points out that Christmas is a date made up to appease the pagans and Christ’s birthday is actually . . . right now. I don’t know why Christ’s birthday is significant to a god in the Norse pantheon, but this is my “no commentary” summary, so . . .
Naturally the gates of Hell are located on Staten Island. The gang shows up there, fights their way through legions of possessed bystanders, and ultimately only Angus and Larry make their way to Elizabeth/Surtr and the column of fire with a vagina-portal in the middle. Yup. That’s a thing that exists in this movie. Larry is reluctant to kill Elizabeth since he apparently kind of has a thing for her (despite being married), but luckily after some fighting, during which Elizabeth loses a finger to the flaming vagina hell portal, Surtr jumps into Angus instead. Larry slaps the Norse rune collar on him, making sure Surtr stays put, and stabs Angus with his own knife. Hooray, the day is saved!
Back at the parish, Larry is unofficially voted the new leader of the group, then proceeds to bang Elizabeth on the kitchen table immediately after telling his wife he’s on his way home. Then we check in with some priest who’s been periodically telling us stuff documentary-style, to find out that because Elizabeth lost her finger in the portal, the gates are still open just a little bit. The sequel practically writes itself, huh?
The Good, the Bad, and the Baffling (aka The Commentary Portion, aka Unleash the Snark):
You might think this movie is in trouble when you realize that the only bit of trivia IMDb lists is “Clancy Brown utters the word “cocksucker” a total of eleven times.” (I actually counted twelve. I . . . probably need to find better things to do with my time.) It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. On the other hand, that’s my kind of trivia. And, you know, you could probably get rich just by following him around with the swear jar, so . . . win?
Speaking of swearing, let’s talk about the level of sin and debauchery going on in this story. When Stephen is explaining the sin ledger to Clint, we get a sin montage as he reads the entries off. There seems to be a lot of drinking and drugs, maybe not as much sex as you’d expect, and . . . Neckbeard Eric literally steals candy from a baby. Unless he straight up murdered that kid after he stole her lollipop, this shit is bush-league sinning. Also, The Simpsons did this joke better, seventeen years earlier. As for the rest, Stephen doesn’t even hit the bong when it’s passed to him and can’t bring himself to say the word “masturbation”; Larry fornicated once with someone other than his wife; Angus is horny and sweary; Elizabeth fucked Larry; Macon fucks dudes; and Eric is . . . just sort of a general douchebag. Their idea of wrath is basically just a playground slappy-fight. Honestly, I was probably more hellbound by ninth grade than these guys. That . . . doesn’t bode well for me, does it?
Look, I’m just saying, from that description I was expecting a lot more gleeful debauchery and mayhem. Instead, I got Eric following Elizabeth around asking if he can go down on her, then trying to learn negging techniques from an online forum in order to get her to let him go down on her. So, since when do incels care about pleasuring a woman orally? I imagine he wouldn’t be able to find the clit to save his life and would instead spend twenty minutes tonguing her urethra and wondering why she was getting annoyed instead of getting off.
Fortunately, Eric isn’t the main focus of the movie. That honor(?) seems to go to Larry, whom I find much more likable. Or maybe I just like Clifton Collins Jr., who knows? When Clint (who is basically interchangeable with William Atherton’s EPA douchebag from Ghostbusters) shows up, Larry keeps mentioning that there are no superheroes named Clint. At first I thought it was an “everyone forgets about Hawkeye” joke, because hello, Clint Barton? But before the climactic battle, Larry finally gets to his explanation/punchline – because of the cheap paper and ink in old comic books (and I suspect kerning has something to do with it, too), “CLINT” comes out looking like “CUNT.” Oh. Oh, poor Hawkeye.
I laughed. B+
It’s difficult to talk about the good and the bad separately in this movie; they’re almost inextricably intertwined. I love the premise, but the script doesn’t do it justice. (Cue Tiffany’s “Could’ve Been” playing in the background of this paragraph.) This movie could have been a biting satire of the hypocrisy of organized religion. It’s not. It could have been an absurd send-up of what the Church still considers “sin” even in this day and age. I think it tried to be, but it doesn’t lean hard enough into it to land. It just makes it look like nobody could think of anything better than eating shellfish and drinking. I bet they’re even wearing mixed-fabric clothing, oh no! That’s hardcore sinning, right there. By this logic, pretty much anyone could be hellbound, and there’s nothing special about our elite sinning men and women of God.
The cast is great; despite only being name-familiar with three of them, not a single person is miscast. Those of you who’ve read my Pet Sematary 2 recap are probably aware that I’ve been a fan of Clancy Brown since I first saw that movie at the tender age of 13 or 14. Clifton Collins Jr. caught my attention in the 2010 TV series, The Event, which was an excellent show sadly cancelled after one season. If you can find it streaming somewhere, it’s well worth a watch. Larry Fessenden, who plays the friendly-to-the-Hellbenders police detective (I know, I know, I haven’t even mentioned him until now), is a genre fave, although my familiarity with him is mostly from the Until Dawn video game. Well worth a playthrough, by the way.
I’ve covered some good, some bad, now it’s time for some baffling. Because I have many questions. Namely, if these men and women of God are supposed to be living lives of constant sin, how are they able to perform exorcisms? Literally all horror media would have me believe that an exorcism will only be successful if the priest goes in clean, confessed and absolved. What . . . what are the rules? Can a priest turn regular sprinklers into holy water if he’s living an unholy life? Also, there’s Surtr. Who, again, is a Norse god, but is treated like a demon, and demon rules apparently apply to him. Why, exactly? Clint claims that saying there are gods other than . . . you know . . . is blasphemy, so that might explain why they treat him as a demon, but then why does he conform to their Judeo-Christian rules for demons? Also, fun fact: the Ten Commandments state that you’re not to have other gods, not that other gods don’t exist. Why command people not to have other gods if other gods don’t exist, ya know?
Hellbenders falls into the trap of most horror-comedies in that it never quite straddles the line successfully. It’s a hard line to walk, and few movies get it right. I’ve seen this movie called a “spoof.” It’s not. It never fully commits to a tone, or even a format. We get bits that suggest a mockumentary – Larry speaks directly to camera at the beginning of the movie; every once in a while we get interview footage from a couple priests and a theologian, but the movie then abandons this format for long periods of time. I mean, get your shit together, movie.
So, Should You Watch Hellbenders? (aka “Why Are You Wasting My Time With This Review, JC?”)
The first time I sat down to watch this movie was two or three years ago. I shut it off a few minutes in because it just wasn’t vibing with me at that time. From that brief first impression, I thought this movie was going to be terrible when I sat down to give it another go a few days ago. But I thought, What the hell; it’s got Clancy Brown in it, it’s short, and I’ve got at least 86 minutes to kill until Boyfriend comes home from work and wants to play some XBox (not a euphemism) – let’s give this a shot!
It wasn’t terrible.
Maybe it was a combination of low expectations, the right mood, and liking the actors involved, but I found Hellbenders enjoyable, if a bit disappointing. There’s a much better movie lurking in here somewhere, and it’s hard not to compare the movie we got to the movie that it could have been. (Cue Tiffany again.) But I guess what could’ve been is better than what could never be at all? (Sorry, I’m going really hard at my fellow 80s babies here.)
In short, enjoyable but disappointing. If you’re not looking for anything especially groundbreaking, you’re in the right mood to just go along with nonsense, you like the actors, or the premise alone is enough to hook you, you’ll probably have a decent time. Go ahead and watch it if it’s readily available to you on whatever streaming services you subscribe to (it’s currently available for free on Tubi TV and Vudu, but who knows how much longer that will hold true), but don’t go out of your way. I can’t in good conscience recommend paying a rental fee to watch it, although personally I’d be willing to throw a couple bucks its way for a rewatch sometime in the future.
Note from Future Me: I rewatched Hellbenders one more time during the editing process of this review to make sure I didn’t fuck anything up too bad, and upon this rewatch I find that I actually might love this movie now. Go figure, cocksuckers.