Ever since their breakout indie The Deeper You Dig lit up the festival circuit in 2019, the Adams family (that’s one ‘d’, and no Morticia or Gomez in sight) have proven something of a horror genre sideshow for travelling fans; a one-of-a-kind mother-father-daughter filmmaking team who write, direct and star together in what is quickly becoming an impressively unusual oeuvre. Slickly, cheaply made spins on old-school genre mainstays with a fascinatingly personal angle. And their depression-era road movie Where the Devil Roams is no different – a gorgeously minimalist, micro-budget marvel of a family-driven horror.
In fact, the Adams’ latest might actually be at its most impressive when it shuns its bigger crowds and more elaborate dressing, and just leans into its absolute essentials. That is, its core unit; an unusual family band, riding across rural America, on the coattails of a travelling horror show. The team themselves – father John, daughter Zelda, and mother Toby Poser – are a uniquely tight fit as the central trio; a mute songstress, a shellshocked army medic, and the murderous matriarch holding them all together, with a built-in emotional shorthand that translates so beautifully and effortlessly to their characters. Even as the story very gradually boxes them into increasingly otherworldly situations.
Because all is not quite as straightforward as the film’s opening act might first tease. The world the Adams build here with such minimal resources is incredibly impressive, kicking off with a familiar look at 1930s carnival culture, but one with a gnarly, supernatural undercurrent. Mainly the greasy Mr Tips, the travelling group’s top performer, who playfully snips the joints of his fingertips off at the climax of every show, only to conjure some dark, backstage ‘devil’ magic to later be able to do it all over again. It’s a nervy first chapter that’s a little slow and meandering on the uptake (not to mention a mis-cut prologue that stretches on and on and on), but it does set the stage terrifically for the gothic drama that starts to unwind, as the focus shifts to the road movie proper.
And of course, the fabulously gross practical effects follow the Adams unit too, as they break off on their own, fighting tooth-and-nail to survive their travels across the American wilderness, with little more than a broken car and a tent. As they lumber from farm to farm, taking what they can, soon Where the Devil Roams shows its true colours – or the lack there of. At its heart, this is a morally messy, scrappy little tale of trauma, and the directors are smart to sew such themes into the very fabric of the film itself.
Decay plays a major part – not just in terms of the relationships on show, or the increasingly nasty wounds inflicted, but the aesthetics too. Where the Devil Roams is a stylish beast, especially considering its budget, carefully told in striking tableaus and an impressively visceral colour-palette, that slowly drains itself into a sickly, impressionistic black and white by the finale. Like the film itself is rotting from the inside out.
Some weak sound design, particularly in the more violent moments, definitely hold back some of the effect. More than one murder feels damp, and a particularly grim D-I-Y tooth extraction that could’ve been the film’s most squirm-inducing moment, just happens rather blankly instead.
But that’s not to say that the Adams’ latest doesn’t genuinely unsettle. Everything, from the sharply gothic visuals, to the film’s muddy moral compass, to the impressively grungy practical gore, is painted with such a grubby grey brush that it’s impossible not to feel shaken by the whole. Especially as the team take their final bow, with a baffling closing image that stings on every level.
While far from straight forward, Where the Devil Roams is an exciting piece of work. How it was put together with the resources they had defies belief, and with it, the Adams are not only three for three, but they announce themselves as arguably the most exciting indie genre team on the map.
Where the Devil Roams was screened as part of FrightFest 2023.