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Review: Hellbenders

7 10

PLOT: A New York-based group of "hellbound ready" priests spend their days sinning up a storm and their nights fighting the emissaries of hell.

REVIEW: Here's an intriguing idea: When demons roam the Earth and the Catholic Church can't handle the task of sending them back to Hell, they call upon an obscure sect wearing the title "The Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints" to combat the threat. Why are these so-called "Saints" right for the job? Because they're almost as debauched as the evils they fight. You see, this lot makes it their duty to sin up a storm, making them "hellbound ready"; and when the time comes to force a demon, devil or whatever other nightmarish entity they encounter to possess them, they kill themselves and send both their own soul and the villain to hell. They've sinned so much that no matter what good they do fighting Satan's helpers, they're going to hell one way or another, so might as well bring a demon back with them.

Kind of a loopy premise, eh? HELLBENDERS is kind of a loopy movie, but a refreshingly brash and ballsy one with a killer cast and devious sense of humor. You can picture a studio giving over $100 million to a premise like this and totally botching it (it would probably end up looking like a bloated R.I.P.D/CONSTANTINE lovechild), but JT Petty's picture is an indie all the way, so the focus is on biting dialogue and a gnarly cast of characters. It's not a home run, and won't necessarily fit the bill if you're hoping for something a little more high-concept, but this low-budget production provides an amusing, fast 85 minutes worth of foul-mouthed fun for those who are willing to accept its lo-fi aesthetic.

The chapter of Hellbound Saints we meet are based in Brooklyn, clearly a borough rife with evil and dementia. The leader of the pack is Angus, played by Clancy Brown in a wonderfully over-the-top, curse-spewing, scene-stealing performance. Among Angus' co-horts are Larry (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a married man who is falling behind on his sinning, but has eyes for Elizabeth (Robyn Rikoon), the order's sole female member. Also swooning for Elizabeth is Erik (Dan Fogler) an overweight, thoroughly unpleasant specimen. Stephen (Andre Royo - "Bubbles" from "The Wire"!) is the most stable of the group, keeping tabs on their sins. Then there's Macon (Macon Blair), a slovenly man-child. They spend a lot of their time getting drunk, smoking weed and much worse, although we're not necessarily privy to their worst inclinations (though they're hinted at in a brief montage of hilarious photographs).

The group finds themselves under siege by a variety of threats: an old Norse demon called Surtr has been freed from his confines in a basement and moves about by possessing bodies, ultimately taking over the form of one of the Saints' own. Perhaps even more daunting is the presence of Clint (Steven Gevedon), a button-down representative of the Brooklyn diocese who is looking to shut down this nasty pack of priests.

For a production that clearly didn't have much of a budget, HELLBENDERS sports some nifty action-horror sequences; a freaky exorcism sequence involving a mentally-challenged man (which itself is sort of a blasphemous idea on Petty's part) and a demonic showdown with a possessed priest in a church are rendered rather well by Petty, who directs them with flair. The make-up effects are top-notch; the same can't necessarily be said of the CG that is sparingly used, but it's not dreadful. (The film is being released in 3D, but I should note that I only saw the 2D version, so can't speak to the effectiveness of the gimmick.)

But Petty's masterstroke is in the casting of this ensemble. Clancy Brown is brilliant, speaking with authority about ancient-old evil and the importance of infidelity; nothing is a trifling matter with Brown's Angus, and the character is a besotted, angry mess from beginning to end. It's a real joy to watch. Collins provides a necessary "everyman" quality to a character who is anything but. It's also good to see Royo get ample screentime as the fairly straight-laced one of the group; for whatever reason, I haven't seen much of the actor since "The Wire," but he proves again here to be a very engaging personality.

I do wish somewhat that Petty had actually allowed his characters to go a little more wild, however; we hear about how awful they are, but we rarely actually see them get into much trouble outside of their constant drinking and drugging. Perhaps it would be unwise to show us our protagonists committing heinous criminal acts, but it might have lent a little more danger to Petty's picture which, when it comes right down to it, takes a fairly conventional approach to its story of a demon attempting to take over the world. The third act is a standard set-piece involving the big bad's legion of followers getting into a tussle with the Saints; it might have been fun if Petty had gotten weirder. That said, this still isn't something you'd want to watch with any Church-going folks, or any soul opposed to one priest encouraging another to commit sodomy.




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