Where the Devil Roams is the third film we’ve reviewed from the writing/directing and acting team of John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser otherwise known as The Adams Family. As you may recall, I was quite impressed with The Deeper You Dig but found Hellbender to be a massive disappointment, an opinion I may be the only one to hold.
The film’s black and white opening scenes put me in mind of Tod Browning’s Freaks as a legless man (Justin Julio, The Streets Run Red) in formal attire drags himself across a stage to read a poem about Abaddon’s lost love to an audience. It’s from the poem’s closing lines that Where the Devil Roams takes its title.
After this, the film switches to colour, but it utilizes colours from a dull and desaturated palette. It’s fittingly bleak and morbid for the scene of parental murder that’s presented to us, and the Great Depression era setting of the rest of the film. As the story progresses and the characters themselves become darker, the film will revert to black and white to great effect.
We follow a family, Maggie (Toby Poser), Seven (John Adams), and Eve (Zelda Adams) as they work what’s left of the carnival circuit. That’s a rough life under the best of conditions, but with the country blanketed in poverty and misery it’s infinitely worse now, especially for a trio as broken as they are.
Creating our own supernatural mythologies is important and joyful for us – here shifting the biblical story of the fallen angel, Abaddon, into a love story that devolves into a family story (always and also built on love, in all its frailties), but refracted through the muddy, bloodied, cracked lens of personal traumas, unfortunate compulsions, and bitter victories.
Where the Devil Roams director’s notes.
A hellish childhood has turned Maggie into a serial killer. Seven came back from World War 1 with PTSD, or shell shock as it was called then. Apart from when she sings, Eve is mute and has some increasingly dark things going through her head. To lighten the load they indulge in the occasional bouts of murder in their travels, their victims often those who they feel have wronged them such as the banker (Stephen O’Donnell, The Hatred, Halfway to Zen) who foreclosed on their farm.
Through much of Where the Devil Roams one can hear radios in the background, often the era’s equivalent of today’s televangelists. Sermons about how faith and hard work will miraculously lift one out of these terrible circumstances. The fact that there are no jobs to be worked is quietly ignored. Against that backdrop, the family’s activities seem at least somewhat justified, and Eve’s drifting toward the use of dark magic inevitable.
While not really frightening the first hour is a compellingly morbid portrayal of this murderous family and their interactions with both those around them and each other. If you’re used to portrayals of killer clans that are more like those in House of 1,000 Corpses or The Hills Have Eyes the believability of this one will be a revelation. They’re written to be people first and killers second. As a result, I could actually imagine them drifting across America, committing their acts of violence, and moving on undetected.
I do wish however that they had gotten to the more demonic elements sooner. The cycle of murders was beginning to wear a bit thin by the time they changed things up as the consequences of their actions catch up with them. Unfortunately, the last half hour also brings a music video style sequence set the one of the family’s musical project, H6LLB6ND6R’s songs. Several of their songs turn up in the film and I found their anachronistic presence annoying.
Apart from that however the Adams do an impressive job of staging a period piece on a nearly nonexistent budget. Yes, there are a few obvious modern piercings and vehicles that look like they’re fresh from a museum and the CGI planes in the WW1 scenes are awful. But creative set dressing along with the award-winning cinematography overcome them to give Where the Devil Roams a mostly convincing sense of time and place.
A fittingly grim and bleak piece of American folk horror, Where the Devil Roams won’t appeal to everyone mostly due to its deliberate pace and at times unfocused script. But for those who like something out of the ordinary, this is a winner.
Where the Devil Roams is currently playing in selected theaters and will be available on November 7th free to watch on Tubi, making it the best Tubi Original to date.