Judge Gordon Sullivan once bent hell into balloon animals.
Deliver them to evil.
There are a surprising number of Christian heretics who, over the centuries, have believed that sinning was the path to salvation. The basic logic goes, "If Jesus died for our sins, it's an insult to him to not sin, since that would nullify his sacrifice." So, these people go out of their way to flout conventional notions of sinning by hosting orgies, killing people, etc. That's all fine and good, but I wonder sometimes why the Christianity hasn't embraced this notion further. It would make total sense to have a renegade group, within say the Catholic Church, that was tasked with experimenting with sin so they could report back to the wider Christian community. If nothing else, it would give the ostensibly virgin pope some leg to stand on when he discusses sex and relationships. Something like that idea is at work in Hellbenders, the follow-up to S&Man and The Burrows for director J.T. Petty. Except, in this case a bunch of priests are tasked with sinning so they can commit suicide while possessed by demons. It's a great premise that supports some wonderful comedy from the leads, even if it's not going to be to everyone's taste.
Facts of the Case
Angus (Clancy Brown, Starship Troopers) heads up a special interfaith task force known as the Hellbound Saints. These are men and women of the faith who go out of their way to sin in the hopes that when they encounter a demon during exorcism, the little guy won't be able to resist possessing one of our hero-ministers. The idea is that they can then kill themselves and drag the demons back to hell. All that's well and good, but then Elizabeth (Robyn Rikoon, Cold Weather) gets possessed but doesn't manage to kill herself, giving a demon with world domination plans a host to work with. Angus and his buddies Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr, Star Trek) and Stephen (Andre Royo, The Wire) attempt to save her, despite orders to terminate the threat her demon inhabitant represents.
It's obvious that J.T. Petty is an ambitious director, and one who doesn't have access to the resources that his vision requires. Though I appreciated his attempt in S&Man, for instance, he tried to do a bit too much; the result was just too muddled to be truly effective. Hellbenders is in many ways a move in the right direction for Petty. This film moves away from the more parodic S&Man and the wildly genre-blending The Burrowers. Instead, we get a pretty straight-up horror comedy, with the emphasis on comedy, particularly the foulmouthed kind. It's a genius move to give his characters a reason to behave badly (so they'll be assured a place in hell), which means there are a lot of darkly humorous moments of religious types doing very nonreligious things.
I'm not sure what happened with the cast of this film. It's a significant step up from previous Petty films in terms of acting chops and name recognition. It's possible the premise was enticing, or maybe Clancy Brown (who worked on The Burrowers) put the word out. Whatever the case, the cast here is the perfect fit for a filthy film about faith. Clancy Brown is his usual stalwart self, making the perfect leader for this strange band of Hellbound Saints. Clifton Collins Jr. gets to be a bit unhinged as Lawrence, which is especially appreciated given how many more staid, mainstream roles he's taking on. The real revelation is Andre Royo, most famous for his turn as a crack addict in The Wire. This is about as far as you can get from the social commentary of that show, but Royo is up to the task, believable as a minister
Hellbenders 3D (Blu-ray) is also solid, with both regular and 3D versions on the same disc. The film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is fine for a lower-budget feature. The widescreen scope really gives the film a more expansive feel, with detail throughout the frame. Colors are appropriately saturated, and black levels stay pretty consistent and deep. Eagle-eyed viewers might notice a bit of compression artefacting (likely due to both versions being on the same disc), but it's not distracting at all. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, with some good directionality during some of the more action-oriented scenes. It's not the widest mix out there, but it's fine for a low-budget horror/comedy.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Petty and the cast. They're a chatty bunch and discuss the origins of the project along with some production stories. We also get a "making of" featurette, along with some behind-the-scenes footage. A tie-in short film, "Exorcism" is a fun addition, as is the film's trailer. This set also includes an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sadly, Petty's ambitions once again get the better of him here. The fact that this is a 3D film is almost entirely a waste, with only a couple of goofy moments (including a flaming joint) to even begin to justify the exercise. Instead, the 3D effects are largely haphazard, and more importantly completely unnecessary. The unnecessary part doesn't always grate with big blockbusters that seem to have cash to spare. However, whatever money Hellbenders spend on 3D effects could have been more appropriately spent just about anywhere else in the budget. It's especially obvious in the film's second act, which has a cramped, stagebound feel as the various characters going through pages of dialogue in nondescript offices.
Though I appreciate the foulmouthed take on the horror-comedy, the film gets a little goofy by the third act. There's only so much a clever concept can bring to a well-worn narrative, and the save-the-girl plot is still the save-the-girl plot, no matter how many demons you throw in the mix. Those looking for a thrillingly original horror film (or comedy for that matter) will be severely disappointed as Hellbenders gradually runs out of steam towards the end. It's not an entirely horrible experience or anything, but enjoyment of the film is going to be strongly correlated with expectations. If you go in looking for some goofy fun, you'll probably get it, but if you hope Hellbenders is the next Evil Dead II, then you may be hellbound yourself.
Hellbenders is a fine low-budget comedy. Though some may be turned off by the blasphemous premise, those who appreciate darkly comic and foulmouthed horror/comedy hybrids will enjoy at least a bit of this flick. Throw in a solid Hellbenders 3D (Blu-ray), and you've got the perfect Friday night rental.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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