Hellbenders (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, Digital HD) – It’s an unusually thin week for New Releases on disc, so I took the opportunity to grab something that might ordinarily get overlooked. I’ve been a fan of JT Petty since he made Soft for Digging more than a decade ago. He’s got a gift for unease and eeriness and prefers weird and creepy over explicit when it comes to his horror.
For Hellbenders, however, he takes a page out of John Carpenter’s Vampires (with a touch of Alex de la Iglesias’ The Day of the Beast) for his wild bunch of holy demon hunters. Clancy Brown leads the multi-denominational dirty half-dozen, a band of badass kamikaze exorcists who behave more like a motorcycle gang than ordained priests. Even their name sounds like a gang: The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints. Petty’s twist is that these holy warriors have a poison pill back-up: if they fail to exorcize their target demon, they can coax the demon into possessing them (a man or woman of God is a prize for Satan’s spawn) and then kill themselves and drag the demon with them back down to hell. Which means they have to be “damnation ready” by breaking a healthy percentage of the 10 Commandments and indulging in the Seven Deadly Sins—within boundaries, of course.
Great idea for a horror comedy but misguided in the execution. Petty isn’t—how shall I put this—funny. His previous films have spun webs of unease with his eerie imagery and offbeat horrors and controlled, underplayed performances. Hellbenders tries to leverage to contradictions inherent in the premise for laughs without actually giving his naughty priests anything clever to do. A bunch of debauched guys (including Clifton Collins Jr., The Wire‘s Andre Royo and an underutilized Dan Fogler) and one woman (Robyn Rikoon) in clerical collars blaspheming a blue streak, smoking dope and discussing sexual indiscretions does not a joke make, and his script doesn’t even offer anything as clever as a tired Bruce Willis quip lobbed under fire.
As meticulous as his best films have been, Hellbenders feels as starved of creative attention as it is of budgetary resources. The direction feels haphazard, the characters lazily dumped into scenes where they try to shout their way out of the material, the demon battles staged with perfunctory fire and brimstone but little sense of anything actually at stake (let alone a genuine hell behind the threat). If you think it’s worth it just to hear Clancy Brown commit himself to a stream of expletives with gusto for near-on 90 minutes, I won’t judge you. But it’s hard to believe such talented people made such a lifeless, laughless black comedy decades after Sam Raimi reset the bar with the Evil Dead films.
Blu-ray and DVD editions include commentary by Petty and the cast and the 26-minute “God’s Dirty Work: The Making of Hellbenders” produced by Red Shirt Pictures (which has been doing fine work for Shout Factory’s special editions), plus behind-the-scenes footage and the original “Exorcism” short films (glimpsed in the mock-documentary framing footage). The Blu-ray edition features the 3D version of the film for 3D-compatible monitors and players and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy.