All the fun of the fair

The Adams family discusses Where The Devil Roams

by Jennie Kermode

Where The Devil Roams
Where The Devil Roams Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

The Adams Family – John Adams, Toby Poser and their children Zelda Adams and Lulu Adama – have been making films together for some years now. Screening as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival and also part of the line-up for this month’s Frightfest, their latest work, Where The Devil Roams, is their best yet. It follows a family of carnival performers: the troubled, psychopathic Maggie (Toby), shell shocked former army medic Seven (John) and singing sensation Eve (Zelda), who is mute offstage, as they travel across the US during the Great Depression, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

We spoke briefly about the film a couple of years ago, when they were promoting their last film, Hellbender, and when we meet again I say that I recall being told then that this one was Zelda’s idea.

Zelda nods. “I watched season four of American Horror Story, which was the freak show story, And the clown really fricking got to me, it scared the hell out of me. It was living in my nightmares. And so I really tried to bang that thought around to get over this nightmare about the clown. And I started making up ideas like maybe the clown isn't such a bad guy, maybe he's got a family, you know? Maybe he's the protagonist. And so I brought this idea to the family about a family of clowns on the carnival circuit, and the life that they're living. They're flawed, but they're also beautiful protagonists of their own story.

“One of the great things about bringing an idea to the family is some things stick and some things don't. The idea of a family on the carnival circuit stuff, the idea of the clowns didn't, but I'm so happy with the way that it turned out.”

It’s a film defined by what is today a very distinctive style, echoing the cinema of the period in which it’s set.

“That period has a ton of romance,” says John. “The images from the Great Depression, they all have a dark romance to them. Not only do we know what happened during that time, it was in between two wars. It's a very dark emotional time, and the cinematography was dark.

“We have been watching old horror movies like Frankenstein, vampire, Nosferatu, and we really fell in love with the tone of those. We also noticed that the horror community is in love with those movies, too, so we thought it'd be fun for us to just jump into an artistic mission. It was a great process. And so far, people are enjoying the images and the story and that's what we wanted to do. It's been a lot of fun.”

It’s clear that a huge amount of work has gone into it. I understand that they even built their own sets.

“That's Lulu. Lulu came from Portland with her boyfriend,” he says. “Me and her and Alex spent many a winter day and winter night building those sets. And what's beautiful about Lulu is she doesn't say no, she's the hardest working girl in show business. One of the most romantic things about making this film for me was getting to hang out with Lou and Alex and building the sets.”

“I think you bond when you're cold and you hit your finger with a nail,” says Lulu. “But realistically it was just doing something physical together. Saying that, we didn't measure everything perfectly. It was another creative space, literally behind the scenes, as we made the set, and we didn't have to follow any rules or worry that these colour boards aren’t matching each other, because we wanted something that was funky and gritty and cheap and that's exactly what it was.”

“It really wasn't too far from the freaks building their carnival set,” adds Zelda.

“When we were on the festival circuit for Hellbender we just started hitting every second hand, thrift and Salvation Army store we could find and collecting this and that, and costume pieces that we thought we could work,” says Toby. “We would just recycle them because we had a cast of over 80 people, and so our we had one room that was just packed with blazers, suspenders, trousers, old looking shoes, and that was all from our festival circuit tour. That room smelled like mould and mildew.”

Along with that style goes the theatrical framing device at the beginning and end of that film. I ask about the beautiful poem about Abaddon and a magical heart with which it opens.

“We love exploring the theologies within our films,” Toby continues. “In this case, we wanted to play off of something that already existed, which is stories or fables of the fallen angels, in this case Abaddon. We just made it our own. It was pure joy, exploring that mythology and the poetry. It also gave it a wonderful, dark undercurrent, correct?”

I nod in agreement.

“Well, one could say it's dark, and one could say it's loving. The devil just wants to be reunited with his mortal love.”

“Normally when we write our films, we know what we want to happen,” says Zelda. “We knew that we wanted a lot of body parts, and we want a lot of body parts being sewn together. And then that's when the mythology comes in, because we need to figure out how that's going to work. You know, how is that feasible? And the same thing with The Deeper You Dig and Hellbender. We knew that we needed a sort of mythology that would make it all make sense.”

I tell her that I think it works beautifully, and ask about the challenge she faced in taking on a silent character.

“I really enjoyed it because it was a fun acting challenge,” she says. “But I've grown up hearing Toby's perspective about how so much can be told between dialogue, and I feel like that was an inspiration for my character.”

Toby says that she thought of the character’s muteness as potentially stemming from trauma due to growing yp in that environment. “But also, there is a certain wonderful energy that the performance scenes have. Eve when she's on stage is a different person. That's when she does express herself vocally. It's when she's separated from the violence of her life offstage, and so the stage gives her a different place where she can shine. She wears the wings, and this is where she is in her full element, I believe.”

“I feel like there were a lot of layers to it,” says Zelda. “She is an angelic character, and not speaking and singing adds to her character. We were saying ‘Well, why would she stick around with her parents?’ And her lack of voice, I think, allows her to rely on her family and stick around because she doesn't hate them. She can't. I don't know if she could get by on her own. So there's a beautiful connection to her family there.”

It also gives her an opportunity to promote her singing career, I observe, and she smiles enthusiastically.

“I wanted to play Maggie so badly,” says Toby. “I love the idea of a woman whose superpowers is her body, and then that's what she loses. That's what the Devil takes from her – and honestly, what karma takes from her, in the same way that Seven’s power is his brain and that's taken from him. But I just loved the idea of a woman who is both violent and kind of horrible, but also just loves her family so damn much, and has her own sense of morality. It goes wrong when, because of her lack of intelligence, she sets things on a different path. She really pays for one bad mistake.

“I just really I felt Maggie in my bones. I based her on the Bluto character from the Popeye cartoons, like a henchwoman, and sort of like Ma Joad from The Grapes Of Wrath, a maternal matriarch with a real bloody streak.”

We discuss Lulu’s appearance in the film.

“I prefer being behind the camera and once I went away to college, it was much more like short appearances and ‘What camera work do you need me for?’ and ‘What are we building?’ But since that first movie, Rumblestrips, that one I was in as an equal main character with all of us, and after that I more liked being behind the camera a lot,” she says.

She gets to be violent in this one.

“She’s our powerhouse,” says John, “so it's so great to put an axe in her hand and say ‘Go to it, girl!’”

John’s own character presents different challenges, in that he’s almost an everyman character caught up in strange events, but he’s also living with trauma, and in the course of the story he suffers a traumatic injury.

“I loved it,” he says. “And I had Toby and Zelda and Lulu there to direct me. I'm not a super comfortable actor, so it was nice – especially as I had to lose my mind – that those guys were directing me through that. I really enjoyed the whole process. I think he's a super fun and, to me, funny character, but I’ve got a dark sense of humour.”

How did they research the carnival business? Did they go to see any such shows?

“We did not,” says Toby. “I happen to love German expressionism, so there are certain films, like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. You know, I love that black and white painted environment, so that was sort of internally influencing my look. And I also come from theatre and really thought that this was our most theatrical work, not just because they actually are on stage, but someone's pulling the strings along the way. And so I think that this film has a certain theatricality, like a black box theatricality where you make a lot with dark and a little bit of light. That was super exciting.”

“We printed up a lot of pictures,” says John. “We went on the internet and looked up old carnivals. Lulu and Alex looked at a lot of those old pictures from dirty carnivals, not like the high class ones that are kind of famous, but county fairs and things like that, because we wanted our carnival to smell like smoke and manure.”

Speaking of theatricality, there's a shot near the end which just shows us Zelda walking down a corridor. I tell them I feel that fitted neatly into the German expressionists tradition, and that I like it because there’s something very fatalistic about it.

“Yeah, we really wanted people to earn that last little scene of the film,” says Zelda. “That's when we wanted to get niche and hold on this beautiful, long shot and have people wonder, you know, who are the people in the hallway looking at her? What is this anticipation?”

“And also, she's now just in black,” notes John. “It's like she's a different angel now. And we love the idea that in the end, two different people are going to have two different opinions about what she did.”

They’re all excited to be back at Fantasia.

“It's the best community to be a part of,” says Lulu. “I’m obviously biased but I mean, just the genre itself being so exploratory, you can still have romance or comedy but you can add such a fantastical thing to it. it opens things up so much. And the horror crew is the most open minded because they accept all those genres and this kind of craziness, this magicalness, and they love those things that are new and crazy and uncomfortable.”

“The festivals are the modern carnies and that's what this movie is about,” says John. “In fact, we are all part of the modern carny, travelling round together talking about horror, putting on shows. It seems like same thing. It's just 2023 and different mediums.”

“It really does feel like the Buffalo Horror Show,” says Zelda, referring to the event at the end of the film. “So it's like, ‘Do you think that this will get in? I hope so, because it'd be a really big present.’ We just want it so bad. And we're just so happy to be at the Fantasia Horror Show. Hello, Fantasia!”

Coming next, they say in unison, is “Faerie.”

“We love that word, and so we have to throw it out there,” says John. “So that it rattles around in everybody's skull, because it's a terrific word.”

“And again, it's something that we can explore a new mythology around,” says Toby. “Faeries typically aren't Disney. They're much more mischievous and insidious, and of course that’s the kind of fairy that we're exploring. It’s an invitation to to be creative in wonderful and horrific ways.” She laughs.

“I think will be gory, and I think it will be subversive,” says John. “The themes that are already just coming up and the themes that we want talk about are compelling and a bit troubling. But that's the thing – the horror crowd doesn't mind talking about these things. And that's the beauty of horror: you can express those troubling concepts in art in a fun way.”

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