Existing somewhere between Tod Browning’s Freaks and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore, the latest feature from the Adams family (John Adams, Toby Poser and Zelda Adams), Where the Devil Roams, takes audiences by the hand and leads them onto a dark stage of the bloody bizarre.
Having just played at the Fantasia Film Festival, the film follows a trio of circus performers in what appears to be the early 1920s. In-between performances, they travel the countryside, killing anyone who so much as looks at them the wrong way. But where there is rot, there is death, and the three are about to learn you can only dance with the Devil for so long before he steps on your toes.
If that sounds vague, it’s because WWI vet, Seven (John Adams), blood-thirsty Maggie (Toby Poser) and creepy mute, Eve (Zelda Adams), don’t have much of anything pushing them through this descent into madness. We merely tag along with them as they drive around in their black motorcar that might as well be a hearse carrying death down the road. This horror show cares less about plot and is more focused on the odd relationship between the characters. Awkward as their interactions are, you can sense the real-life bond of the Adams family amongst the trio as they perform, slay, and sleep under the stars together. There’s a peaceful love that resonates between them, sweet in its purity but lacking conflict to drive the story.
Occasionally presented in an old-timey style with the edges of the frame blacked out and coupled with a banging score performed by the filmmakers, Where the Devil Roams is itself like a schlocky magic act reliant on shock value and vibes. You might find yourself spinning through a black void of confusion as the film falls in and out of nightmarish surrealism, occasionally feeling like a punk rock Cabinet of Dr. Caligari presented in a music video style. You can almost imagine The Adams Family stepping onto stage decked out in a gothic wardrobe, confident gaze looking out over the audience as they strum their instruments and translate the music to screen. They are performers through and through, much like the characters they play here, with their latest film acting as less of a traditional narrative and more of a curious circus act.
Where the Devil Roams is by far the most ambitious film from The Adams Family to date. Authentic costume design and well-crafted sets do wonders to bring this period piece to life, even if that believability is undercut now and then by shoddy CG. It’s also their goriest offering yet. Akin to a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatterfest, there’s nothing here that’s quite as shocking as the “Godfather of Gore” was known for, but the film is still plenty gross. Loads of rubbery limbs are hacked off (and sewn back on) in this festering oddity that might have you wriggling around like a worm in a pus-filled wound. One scene will even make you get down on your knees and hail Satan for modern dentistry.
This film belongs to a very specific club of weird that’ll either pull you up onto the table chanting “one of us” or slam the door in your face, depending on how willing you are to go with it. It’s like something you might observe in a jar at a roadside attraction. Slimy. Gross. Unidentifiable. With a meandering narrative that makes it difficult to get a good grasp of this slippery sideshow. The Adams Family stitches together a barrel of pieces that don’t quite fit, from filmmaking styles to narrative plot-points that are all over the place. The story structure here is messier than the piles of limbs which the characters leave behind, saving the meat of the conflict until the third act when the film would have been better served introducing that particular element much earlier. Largely one-note performances also keep us at a distance from the characters, able to understand them on a surface level without actually entering the mysterious tents of their minds.
Just like any circus performance, Where the Devil Roams is endlessly fascinating at the same time. The talents of the filmmakers are on full display, from artful cinematography to grim symbolism that pulls you in despite a sluggish pacing. Open it up, drain the blood, and there’s a relatable story underneath the putrid flesh of this film about the way in which metaphorical rot spreads on the inside like a cancerous tumor. Cut off all of the infected body parts you like, there’s no getting rid of the pestilence of the soul. Set against a winter backdrop and washed in muted tones, The Adams Family presents a gloomy tale which digs at the wound of the ways the upper class takes advantage of the unfortunate, delighting in their pain and misery as part of their own sick amusement.
Disjointed. Uncanny. Nasty. Where the Devil Roams is marred by a directionless narrative which rots the film from the inside out, yet is so odd in its presentation that it warrants at least one curious look for connoisseurs of the macabre. At the very least, I can promise you won’t soon forget it.
Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film covered here wouldn't exist. I support the members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
By Matt Konopka