It’s difficult to parse the project of Toby Poser, John Adams, and Zelda Adams without relating it to the larger film industry. As they reiterated during the Q&A after their latest film’s world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, they are not interested in the typical trajectory for filmmakers, where you make the jump, as John put it to the crowd, from a tiny budget to a $10 million film, to a $40 million one, to $100. In an age dominated by intellectual property, franchise mania, and the heightened precarity of independent filmmaking, this has seemingly become the only viable route to not only success and fame, but to career longevity and stability. For a timely example, just look at Greta Gerwig, who has transitioned from Nights and Weekends ( $15,000 budget) to Lady Bird ($10 million) to Little Women ($40 million) to Barbie ($130+ million) — and next up are at least two films in a new imagining of The Chronicles of Narnia, the cost of which is sure to be stratospheric. In our present, this may indeed be the only path to becoming a dependable studio director, but the Adams family is hoping that there remain alternative avenues to long-term creative output.
Their latest, Where the Devil Roams, is another affirmation of just how effective they are at crafting a tale that feels much larger in scope and scale than its budget would suggest. The directors’ first period film, Where the Devil Roams takes place during the 1930s and centers on a family of carnies (played by the trio) who are also a little too keen to kill when it suits them. The production design and set decoration are lovingly crafted to resemble downtrodden carnival grounds, and the body horror practical effects are suitably gruesome, even gratuitously so. It’s obvious from the final product how much care and joyous energy went into the film’s production, every inch of effort evinced onscreen.
Unfortunately, the story itself wanders in a way that makes the film’s runtime feel longer than its 93 minutes. While there are a number of intriguing threads that repeat, the whole thing never quite coheres into any satisfying whole — the devil indeed roams, and doesn’t stop anywhere for very long. Of course, in some sense this reflects the episodic lives of the film’s carnival characters, drifting from township to township, performing their bizarre act — Eve, played by Zelda, sings beautiful songs, while Seven and Maggie, played by John and Toby, “dance” in minimal movements, though as the film moves forward, the act develops into more extreme body horror spectacle — and killing those that cross them on the way. Still, while it’s a fallacy to believe that cinematic narrative necessarily needs to build to something, here one wishes that the Adams family could more precisely match their narrative ambition to the exhilarating approach they bring to the process itself.
Certainly, some of the satisfaction one finds in watching their films comes from an intimate appreciation for what they’re able to achieve despite limited resources, and watching the directors up the ante with larger casts, more developed characters, and grander canvases offers undeniably exciting viewing. It’s a boon to independent filmmaking that this group continues to do things their own way, rejecting calls from Hollywood and sticking steadfastly to what they do best. Where the Devil Roams’s final shot suggests, among other thorny thematic and aesthetic questions about the body and mortality, that the Adams family have much more to say beyond how they fold their own family dynamics into their art, a facet which nevertheless takes center stage here through an exploration of how to contend with age, loss, and, yes, trauma. The shot is deliberately bold, intended to ignite debate, though it arguably lands even more effectively as a statement of purpose for the Adams project from here: similar materials, bigger ambition. Bring it on.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 2.