It’s time for a new kind of family group, and the Adams family (no, not That one) is perhaps the bohemian clan of eccentric designers the world is looking for. Over the past decade and years of change, married couple John Adams and Toby Poser have collaborated on films that bring their entire family into the DIY moviemaking process. The first ones were drama, but over time the focus shifted to horror as the youngest child, Zelda, now 17, became more active both behind and in front of the camera. . Zelda shares writing and directing credits with her parents on their latest film, master of hellwhich will expose the Adams family to its widest audience yet when it premieres on Shudder.
Zelda and Toby also star as Izzy and Mother, who live on a restored farmhouse in upstate New York that was previously seen in Adams’ latest production, a ghost story. The deeper you dig. Izzy has been ‘in the mountains’ since she was 5, and her mother refuses to let her come to town, telling her daughter she has a rare immune disorder and could die if she gets close too many strangers. The two eat a foraged vegetarian diet and spend their time making art and practicing songs for their (honestly fair enough) hard rock band, H6LLB6ND6R. But Izzy is getting older and more curious about life beyond the little patch of land she calls home.
One day, Izzy sneaks out and stumbles upon a party thrown by local teenagers, who challenge her to swallow an earthworm as part of a drinking game. She does, of course – eating a worm is nothing compared to social exile at 16. But this small gesture turns out to be very important. The tiny invertebrate’s life force awakens Izzy’s latent powers as a master of hell, a dominating natural force she would later describe as “a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator”. The masters of hell take the form of human women, but are immortal and reproduce asexually. They draw their occult strength from blood and fear and exist outside the bounds of human morality – which is why Mother tried to delay Izzy’s transformation for as long as possible.
But now it’s here. And so Mother begins to educate Izzy in the dark power of their shared lineage. The occult elements in master of hell are unique, organically crafted folk sorcery style that is heavy with blood, herbs and Blair Witchstyle seals made of sticks and bark. But the film’s thematic content – a cauldron of maternal fear, teenage frustration, creation, destruction, isolation and troubled family stories – is in the same category as horror films like Relic who unmask the monsters that hide in mother-daughter relationships. However, Izzy and Mother are not a typical couple. How many mothers and daughters do you know who get high on maggots and spit blood in their faces laughing hysterically?
master of hellThe psychedelic visuals, fiery heavy-metal digressions and saturated, overcast colors are all reminiscent of a 90s music video, an impression reinforced by the heavy, doom sound of H6LLB6ND6R’s original songs. (The group consists of John, Toby, Zelda, and older sister Lulu Adams, who plays Izzy’s friend Amber.) master of hell, Adams’ well-worn toolbox expands to include a Steadicam and drone camera, both operated by Zelda, DPing alongside John, which really enhances the production value. But the film’s most valuable asset (apart from its creators, of course) is its forest setting. Rows of white birch trees and jewel-toned ferns, shot in deep shots brimming with detail, create considerable visual interest.
Still, it remains an obviously low-budget production, and the lack of resources is most evident in the sound mixing and visual effects. Even as the Adams family climbs the ladder from DIY to low-budget filmmaking, the price of true independence is that the CGI isn’t as slick as in more expensive projects. Then again, even expensive CGIs age badly, so who cares? master of hell is also quite thin, with performance scenes that complement its short runtime. But, again, would you rather have a powerful 83 minutes or a dull 123 minutes?
The only criticism of master of hell what sticks are the changes made to the film between its festival debut and its Shudder arc. They’re understandable – the original ending was much more ambiguous – but a disappointment nonetheless. Yet if there is a lesson to be learned from master of hell, it’s this: underestimate the small and the unassuming at your peril, whether it’s the character of Izzy, the actual creators of the movie, or the movie itself.