Videophiled: JT Petty’s ‘Hellbenders’ 3D

HellbendersHellbenders (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 come offer anything as clever as a tired Bruce Willis quip lobbed under fire.

Not the Last Supper

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 shout their way out of the material, the demon battles staged with perfunctory fire and brimstone but little sense of anything actually at stake. 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.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

JT Petty on The Burrowers and horror on the frontier

The Burrowers, JT Petty’s minor key take on the horror western, arrives direct to DVD on April 21. I interviewed JT Petty, the director, for Parallax View.

Clancy Brown and William Mapother in The Burrowers
Clancy Brown and William Mapother in "The Burrowers"

Why a horror western?

I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.

What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?

A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?

Read the complete interview here.