It would be fair to say that I am simply a fan of movies. That's a huge umbrella, honestly, but my tastes for the most part are completely varied and are covered by such a wide range of genre fair, it's hard for me to pick a particular favorite. Is genre film a genre itself? Maybe. And there are quite a few directors working in film these days outside of the Hollywood system that have been churning out consistently good genre fare.
JT Petty is one of them. His previous work includes the Burrowers, a Clancy Brown starring horror western mashup, and S&Man (pronounced sandman) which pays tribute to low budget giallo and the hyper violence of films like August Underground.
His latest, Hellbenders, is a comedy first, a possession/exorcism story second. Based on his own graphic novel (good luck finding it, by the way) it plays on many influences, but for my money I'd point the finger at Alex De La Igelsia's Day of the Beast, aka El Dia de la Bestia, which chronicles the adventures of a Catholic priest bent on stopping Armageddon by sinning as much as possible to become privy to where the Antichrist will be born. In Hellbenders, the Antichrist is actually the Norse god-killer Surtr, who has taken possession of a local member of the order of St Augustine's Hellbound Saints, a group of priests that spend every waking moment sinning as much as possible so that should their attempts at exorcism fail, they can become possessed, and then kill themselves in order to send the demon back to a guaranteed place in Hell. Surtr is focused on converting souls in order to open the gates to Jotunheimr so that he can murder the universe, including the gods, old and new alike.
Petty's story on paper belies his script, giving no indication that what the viewer is about to see is in fact one of the most hysterical films of 2013, never mind the last several years. His script is chock full of banter so witty and casual it would make RDJ and Paltrow blush with envy. This is helped immensely by his casting decisions. Clancy Brown is a natural. An effortless character actor who embraces his roles whether it's as the Kurgan in Mulcahey's Highlander, or as a bit player mercenary in Extreme Prejudice with powerhouses Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe. He dives headlong into his part as Father Angus, playing both madly hysterical and tragically anguished at the same time. As well, you might recognize Clifton Collins Jr, here Father Lawrence who gives just as much to his character. Collins is a natural when it comes to sarcasm, cynicism, and aw shucks innocence, and as his first time headliner, he's fantastic here. His rapport with Brown is impeccable and natural. And not to sell the rest of the cast short, either. Dan Fogler plays righteous, pious, contemptuous, and sleazy with equal measure. A lot of his scenes subtly hilarious, topped by a bit where he hones his direct striking capabilities while eating cereal. Andre Royo and Macon Blair are also exceptionally funny, rounded out by an immensely dislikeable Stephen Gevedon who nails his character. If I had any casting complaints, it would be with Robyn Rikoon as Elizabeth, who aside from some great physical comedy is underwhelming when stood against her cast mates. My other issue would be that Larry Fessenden's role seems nearly negligible, which is a shame, because Fessenden is nearly as great in front of the camera as he is behind it.
Aside from casting, Petty has spent a great deal of time on the production itself, which shows. A smaller budget, certainly, but you'd never know it from his framing, use of practical effects, and milking the locations used for every bit of atmosphere that he can muster. How this managed to bypass larger theaters is beyond me. It's no less funny than films like World's End or This is the End, just minus the A-List comedy troop or fan-boy director cred. I would argue it's actually funnier and more rewarding than the other two 2013 flicks I just mentioned.
Unless it's still running the gamut of festival play, it's available as video on demand (I streamed it from Amazon Instant) and I'm not holding my breath for a wide 2014 release. That's fine, as this film deserves to be enjoyed by a special core group of fans, who can probably better appreciate it in front of a big TV at home where you can bluster and guffaw over pizza and some brews... Virgil's nutmeg root beer for me, please. Really, I can't wait to see this again. Recommending it is a no brainer, and you can expect to see it pop up on my best of '13 list at the end of the year for sure.