Filmmaker J.T. Petty has made a name for himself among genre fans with his original independent films Soft for Digging, S&Man, and The Burrowers. While S&Man features some bleak humor in its faux documentary portrayal of the “fake snuff film” underground, Petty’s other films have been more notable for their quiet and careful pacing. So it’s some surprise that his latest feature, Hellbenders, is a flat-out horror comedy, based on Petty’s own graphic novel of the same title. Fortunately, Petty shows he’s just as adept at handling fast-paced action as he is with the more measured approach of his previous films.
Lawrence (Clifton Collins, Jr.) is a former excommunicate and now member of the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, a group of exorcists who are funded by the Catholic church, although not officially recognized by it. The job of the “Hellbenders” is to act as a “nuclear option” in extreme cases of exorcism: they live together and constantly keep tabs on their level of sins so they are constantly ready to be damned on their death. This allows them to take the demon into themselves, then commit suicide in order to literally drag the demon back to Hell. Lawrence works under the command of Angus (Clancy Brown), who has been with the Order since 1986. Their team is rounded out by bookkeeper Stephen (Andre Royo), omnisexual Macon (Macon Blair), wannabe pickup artist Eric (Dan Fogler) and Elizabeth (Robyn Rikkon). “I’m a woman and you’re a Catholic,” she helpfully points out to Stephen when he checks up on her current level of damnable offenses. “Everything I do is a sin.”
When the current Pope dies, things start to change. The Church sends Clint (Stephen Gevedon) to investigate Angus’s chapter of the Hellbound Saints and decide whether or not they are worth continued funding. At almost exactly the same time, a tip-off from friendly police Detective Elrod (Larry Fessenden) leads Angus and Lawrence to uncover evidence that a long-dormant evil Norse god called Surtr is planning to return to the Earth, rip open a gateway to Hell and kill God. Clint unsurprisingly is not impressed with Angus and his crew and threatens to cut their funding just when they’re about to enter a battle to stop the destruction of everything, and before long Surtr makes a move on one of the Hellbound Saints themselves. It’s up to the remaining crew to stop Surtr from bringing about the end of all creation, and hopefully Lawrence can also manage to patch things up with his wife Penelope (Samantha Buck), who’s trying to stop drinking.
Petty balances the various plot lines in Hellbenders fairly well, giving most of the crew their own distinct personalities and problems to work out. It’s almost impossible to watch this without Ghostbusters coming to mind, but given its raucously uncouth setup, Hellbenders is a completely different beast. Clancy Brown probably doesn’t get a single sentence out in this film without at least one extremely rude word, and the team’s constant drinking and blasphemies are hilariously inventive. Things sort of unravel a bit in the third act when the scope of the battle gets much larger than the one-on-one exorcisms earlier in the film, but Petty certainly deserves points for ambition. Anyone easily offended–or, hell, reasonably offended–by irreverent humor related to Christianity and Catholicism will want to give Hellbenders a wide berth, but everyone else is in for a treat. This is one of the best horror comedies to come down the pike in some time.
Lionsgate released Hellbenders on DVD and Blu-ray/3D Blu-ray on 18 February 2014. Special features include a commentary track, “making of” featurette, behind-the-scenes footage, “exorcism” short films (submitted in a contest to be included in the film), and the film’s theatrical trailer.