‘Where the Devil Roams’ review: Don’t miss this twisted family road trip

All you need to know about Where the Devil Roams can be summed up by one headline that flashes onscreen during a montage: “Gruesome family act steals the show.”

The headline certainly describes the film, but it could just as easily apply to the family of filmmakers who brought it to life: the Adams family. (No, not that one.) John Adams, Zelda Adams, Lulu Adams, and Toby Poser are known for crafting independent horror films like 2021’s Hellbender. That streak continues with the admittedly “gruesome” Where the Devil Roams. It’s a Depression Era-set period piece with a Satanic streak, and it makes for the most unconventional (and haunting) family road trip movie you’ll see all year.

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What’s Where the Devil Roams about?

Where the Devil Roams introduces us to a family of traveling carnies: Seven (John Adams), a war veteran suffering from PTSD; Maggie (Toby Poser), his impulsive, violence-prone wife; and their daughter Eve (Zelda Adams), who sings in their carnival act but otherwise doesn’t speak.

The trio’s (played by the film’s three directors) act gets middling reception at greatest, but they get their real kicks out of murdering evildoers they find all around the carnival circuit. These murder scenes play out in darkly funny fashion, with Seven’s horrified aversion to blood contrasting with Maggie’s readiness to get her hands bloody. Post-killing rituals involve everything from taking photos of the murder scenes to strumming a ukulele beside the dead bodies, injecting the deaths with a strangely twee aesthetic.

Eve’s family aren’t the only carnies with a dark secret. The carnival’s star performer, a magician named Mr. Tips (Sam Rodd), owns a devilish artifact that allows him to cut off and reattach his fingers. But when Eve steals the artifact to save her parents after a murder gone awry, she risks exposing her family to a lifetime of pain.

Where the Devil Roams is an eerie slow burn.

Where the Devil Roams revels in its slow-burn storytelling, creeping along like decay in rotting flesh (of which there is no shortage in this film). Images with seemingly no connection, including lost children’s shoes and Eve’s careful dismemberment of dolls, establish the movie’s growing sense of dread, but also pay off in big ways in the final act.

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That sense of dread is also the result of Where the Devil Roams’ meticulous use of its settings. The carnival, with its white-faced clowns and eerily repetitive barkers, is already a classically creepy spot, made all the more so by Mr. Tips’ whisperings about deals with the devil. The empty spaces between carnival stops provide ample room for uncanniness as well. Stark forests and frozen-over creeks suggest a dangerously magical wilderness where anything can happen.

Where the Devil Roams finds horror in negative space as well, situating brightly-lit faces in total darkness so that we can only guess what’s playing out around them. This technique also helps us focus solely on the pain flashing across characters’ faces: A tooth removal scene is extra grisly thanks to the surrounding darkness. That darkness only grows as the film goes on, gradually shifting from color to black and white to mirror Eve’s family’s own descent into misery.

Where the Devil Roams delivers a strangely sweet family story.

Throughout all the murder and misery, Where the Devil Roams keeps a strong focus on the familial ties that bind Eve, Seven, and Maggie together — ties made even more resonant by the filmmakers’ own. The film intersperses its bloodier interludes with scenes of Eve, Seven, and Maggie’s own sort of domesticity. We see them doing their laundry, eating dinner around a campfire, and complaining about each other’s snoring. Eve and Maggie even discuss Eve’s period, giving us a peek into their mother-daughter relationship. 

All these smaller moments build up an authentic ease between this trio, so that when crisis strikes, you’re so caught up in their lives that you don’t want anything to tear them apart. Without spoiling too much, it’s this threat of a family being separated that drives Where the Devil Roams’ last act, which externalizes that separation anxiety with some unforgettable body horror. 

That conclusion owes its strength to the film’s emphasis on Eve, Seven, and Maggie as a loving family unit. Where the Devil Roams reveals that Seven and Maggie both experienced major family trauma: Seven with his first wife and children, Maggie with her mother. But there’s no sign of that strife between Seven, Maggie, and Eve. They care so deeply for each other — a quality we see in even the strangest of situations, like Eve covering Seven’s eyes so he doesn’t see blood when Maggie murders someone. They may be messed-up murderers, but they’re strangely lovable too — and that’s what keeps us watching.

Where the Devil Roams was reviewed out of its US premiere at 2023’s Fantastic Fest. It will hit Tubi later this year.


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