31 Days of Halloween, Andre Royo, bad priests, based on a graphic novel, Catholic church, cinema, Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Dan Fogler, dutiful heroes, elder gods, exorcists, Fallen, film reviews, films, Ghostbusters, Hellbenders, horror-comedies, J.T. Petty, Larry Fessenden, Last Supper, Macon Blair, Movies, religious-themed horror, Robyn Rikoon, S&man, sins, Soft For Digging, Stephen Gevedon, supernatural, Surtr, The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, The Burrowers, writer-director
In an era where ideas (and films) seem to get recycled with as much ease as hand-me-down clothes, it’s more than refreshing to come across an original concept: it’s downright life-affirming. Writer/director J.T. Petty’s Hellbenders (2012) has one hell of an original concept, pun intended: six priests, all of various denominations, exist in a state of constant sin so that they may serve as the “nuclear option” for exorcisms. When there are demons that are too powerful for “regular” exorcists to handle, the team swoops in, invites the demons to possess them and then commit suicide, thereby dragging the demons straight back to hell with them. What this really is, of course, is a perfect excuse to witness priests swear, booze it up and engage in some very bad behavior, ranging from the slightly assholish to the downright blasphemous. It’s a great concept and almost guarantees an interesting film: even though the final product ends up a religious-themed Ghostbusters (1984) with a touch of Fallen (1998), there’s enough wicked good times here to make genre fans pay attention.
The film actually has a rather inauspicious beginning as we witness Angus (Clancy Brown), Larry (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Det. Elrod (genre auteur Larry Fessenden) tromping around in some nondescript attic-area, lit only by flashlight. The scene recalls [REC] (2007), which seems like a strange point of reference, before jumping into some sloppy pseudo-mockumentary, talking-head-type footage. Just when things seemed to be taking a turn for the generic, however, the glorious opening credit sequence swooped in and saved the day: set to a swaggering, stomping tune, we see our six heroes arrayed around a table, Last Supper style, engaging in everything from excessive drinking to make grilled cheese sandwiches with a Jesus sandwich-press. It’s a silly, visually impressive and, most importantly, utterly badass intro and ends up setting an impossibly high bar for the rest of the film. For a time, however, the movie almost lives up to its potential.
Our resident exorcists are Angus, the de facto leader and oldest of the group; Larry, the second-in-command (fulfilling the Peter Venkman role); Elizabeth (Robyn Rikoon), the resident spitfire who casually sleeps around with Larry; Stephen (Andre Royo), the “accountant” of the group, who keep track of their ledger of sins; Eric (Dan Fogler), who not-so-secretly pines for Elizabeth and Macon (Macon Blair), the free-lovin’ Southern Baptist minister who’s obsessed with his pretty-boy looks. The group lives together, cracking wise and engaging in their various sins with gusto, living just like a parochial version of the Ghostbusters. Their antics may be necessary as far as keeping the world safe goes but they certainly don’t go over well with certain bureaucratic elements at the Vatican, as evidenced when holy pencil-pusher Clint (Stephen Gevedon) comes around to keep an eye on the wayward priests. He definitely approve of the drinking, drug use, fornicating and blasphemy but he seems to be even more irate over the inherent waste of funds: sinning be damned, the Hellbound Saints just don’t make good fiscal sense!
As with any film like this how, however, we know that our dutiful heroes will be needed even if their superiors don’t. They’re forced to spring into action when they get involved with one seriously badass demon, an elder god by the name of Surtr. It seems that Surtr is known as a “god-killer” and has roamed around eternity putting the snuff on other deities that it considers to be weaker. Surtr has now set his sets on the Judeo-Christian God and it’s up to Angus and his crew to stop it before all of Heaven is destroyed in the process. Things get complicated, however, when Elizabeth becomes possessed by Surtr but neglects to kill herself, giving the elder god an earthly vessel, as well as a convenient way to gain more followers (achieved via a noxious cloud of flies). Angus wants to kill Elizabeth in order to send Surtr to Hell. Larry, on the other hand, is in love with Elizabeth and would rather not see her suffer eternal damnation, despite it being pretty much her only job duty. With all of humanity on the line (or, at least, the Judeo-Christian portion), will love or duty win out?
For the first ten minutes or so of Hellbenders, I laughed so hard that I cried: no lie. The script is impossibly witty, choked with so much rapid-fire obscenity, bad behavior and juvenile attitude that it feels like one’s being pummeled by a prize-fighter armed with one-liners rather than fists. It’s a heady experience and, for a time, I was pretty sure this was going to be the funniest film I’d ever seen, hands down. And then, of course, the honeymoon was over and tedium began to set in: what was uproariously funny in a compressed ten minutes became wearing and tiresome over the sustained course of the film. This might sound like harsh criticism of the film and, in a way, I suppose that it is. It’s also, conversely, a big compliment: if you can stay on the film’s wavelength, it’s pretty much the apex of this type of movie. I ended up really liking the film but was disappointed, ultimately, because I didn’t love it: there was potential for so much more than was fully realized here and that kind of let me down.
Make no mistake, however: when Hellbenders is good, it’s pretty damn great. The acting is top-notch, from top to bottom, with Robyn Rikoon being particularly stellar as Elizabeth. It’s a great ensemble cast and they work together like a charm: in fact, the film really starts to come off the rails when it moves from the opening “bad priests hanging out” material into the more familiar “battling supernatural evil” territory. I’ve seen plenty of films that look exactly like the latter but precious few like the former: I really wish that we could have had a little more to get to know our priests before they were off butting heads with ancient evil in some rather clichéd fight scenes.
J.T. Petty directs the film based on his own graphic novel and there are plenty of points where the film actually feels like a big-screen comic book adaptation, not least of which is the odd moment where the film actually becomes a comic, complete with panels. That odd misstep aside, the film looks consistently great and features some pretty exemplary effects work. The film also ends up being pretty violent, which might seem like a given but is only odd when the majority of gore is loaded into the film’s conclusion: suffice to say that I was rather surprised to witness someone bite out another character’s eyes, although I was certainly forewarned when a nose was later chewed off in similar manner.
While I will freely admit that I disliked Petty’s debut feature, Soft For Digging (2001), with a zeal that I normally reserve for much shittier films, I’ve actually enjoyed the rest of his filmography quite a bit. In particular, I think that his 2008 horror-Western The Burrowers is an amazing, nearly perfect film that’s equal parts eulogy and nail-biting terror, although his found-footage experiment, S&man (2006), is an equally interesting, if substantially more flawed, production. Even though he’s never mentioned alongside the likes of current genre faves Ti West or Adam Wingard, I personally feel that Petty has the potential to be the best of the bunch, some day: The Burrowers is such a monumental achievement that I keep hoping it wasn’t his magnum opus.
Even though Hellbenders ends up in a much more familiar place than it begins, it’s still a ton of fun and seems perfect as a party/crowd film. There are plenty of glorious setpieces here, the overall storyline is pretty genius and the ensemble cast is superb, riffing off each other in near perfect synthesis. I wish that the film was able to sustain its gonzo tone longer than it does but I’m also reminded of the saying that the flame that burns twice as hot only burns half as long. Fair enough: Hellbenders is hot enough for most of its running time that I can forgive if it seems to fizzle out a bit before the conclusion. There appears to be hints at a sequel, however, which could easily take the film’s universe into some pretty awesome Hellboy-like territory. Sign me up! I may not have loved Petty’s Hellbenders but I liked it enough to anticipate the next installment. In the meantime, it’s good to know that we have people like Angus and his crew watching over us, keeping humanity safe one upraised middle finger at a time.