“A lot of my nightmares growing up were about clowns,” Zelda Adams reveals when we ask her about her new movie, Where The Devil Roams, “especially after I watched season four of American Horror Story!”
We’re feeling you Zelda – clowns and carnivals are a staple in the horror genre, and Where The Devil Roams follows a family of carnival acts as they journey around the US, committing a murder or two along the way…
The family we follow are mother Maggie (Toby Poser), father Seven (John Adams) and their daughter Eve (Zelda Adams) and indeed Toby, John, Zelda and eldest daughter Lulu Adams comprise their own act – of the filmmaking kind.
The Adams family write, direct, produce, edit, star and even create their own music for their movies and Where The Devil Roams is their seventh feature in a long and varied career of making films, jumping different genres.
Lately, though, the Adams have been playing in the horror pond, with their fifth feature, the dark ghostly tale The Deeper You Dig taking the family into the supernatural horror direction, followed by witchy and magical HELLBENDER and now Where The Devil Roams. Their movies are made via their production company, Wonder Wheel Productions and it’s no accident that their latest focuses on carnivals, given their company’s namesake
“I mean, the name of our production company is after a big Ferris wheel!” Toby laughs when we delve into horror’s association with carnivals with her. “I think the kind of carnivals that we’re attracted to are the little side carnivals that are an equal hybrid of seedy and thrill. That you never know if you’re going to die on those little rickety rides but you have to go on them,” she tells us. “And the lights and the bad foods that smell so sweet and good and the strange possibilities of sideshow strangeness is very romantic…”
“There’s magic in circuses,” John agrees. “There’s also magic in the romance of us all looking back at the 1930s or anytime in the past. I think it was the perfect place to set this film of these characters that we wanted to bring to life because there is already a built-in dark romance to that time and that part of society.”
Indeed, the movie is set during the great depression of America in the 1930s and sees the family travelling around in a rather impressive 1931 Chevy (we’ll come back to that later), which is pretty ironic seeing as the journey the Adams take on their road to moviemaking, too, usually happens in the car: “We have long car rides to soccer practice or drives to the city and we are always just talking, bringing up little ideas,” reveals Zelda. “Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s Toby, sometimes it’s John, just bringing up something like: ‘Hey, what do you guys think about this?’ We like to call it throwing spaghetti; start throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks about the idea. And then sometimes this wonderful monster is formed.”
The beginning of their journey for Where The Devil Roams was no different: “I was sitting in the car with John,” Zelda remembers, “and I was thinking to myself: ‘Hey, what if the clown actually wasn’t the bad guy?’ That’d be a really interesting movie.
“So I brought this idea of a clown on the carnival circuit that’s the protagonist and John and Toby did a wonderful idea of warping that into a story that didn’t end up being about a clown, but it was about a group of carnies that were flawed, but were the protagonists of the film.”
Flawed is a pretty attenuative way of describing the three complex central characters in the film. First up we have Maggie, who we first see in the movie as a child joining her sister in the murder of their parents and who grows up to have a penchant for much of the same. At the same time, she’s a loving mother and supportive wife, who goes above and (murderously) beyond protecting her family and who we see at points lovingly touching children’s shoes that she sometimes finds – a throwback to a traumatic childhood memory. “I just thought that Maggie should be lovable and horrible and deeply, deeply flawed, like all these characters,” Toby reveals. “I don’t think she’s the sharpest tool in the shed but I wanted her to know how to use those tools. I wanted to play Maggie and she kind of just came out of the desire to play someone who was both horrible and lovable.”
Maggie couldn’t be more opposite to John, who balks at the very sight of blood after suffering from PTSD as a result of being a war doctor. Luckily for him, Maggie always makes sure to gently blindfold him before carrying out her deadly deeds. Meanwhile, Eve takes a more voyeuristic role in Maggie’s murders, carefully photographing each terrible tableau after the event.
Eve is also a mute, which was actually handy for Zelda when it came to shooting the movie: “I was pretty happy because I didn’t have to learn any lines!” she laughs. “I could just show up and go ‘let me give a couple of different expressions’. So that’s it. But I actually really did love it because she’s one of the main characters and she has to tell a lot through her emotions. So I did feel like it was a fun acting challenge for me.”
Though she’s mute, for their carnival act, Eve sings on stage while her parents perform with her and in another delightful twist of life imitating art, the family is also in a band together in real life – H6LLB6ND6R, which is what their sixth movie was named after. Oh and the band is awesome and you can listen to them on Spotify here.
It’s not surprising, then, that music plays an integral role for the family during the filmmaking process. “I think that music is actually a lot of our backbone when we’re making a film,” Zelda reveals. “It’s something that we can rely on and it’s something that can help guide us through the story.”
The family didn’t listen to H6LLB6ND6R on the set of Where The Devil Roams mind you, and went for a heavier vibe of music to fit in line with the tone of the movie. “Through our process, we’re always recording and listening to music,” John reveals. “So we’re all very aware of what the musical tone of our film is going to be.
“We were going for a more heavy stoner-rock vibe [in the movie] and so on car rides and stuff we were listening to bands like Pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs pigs, pigs or Slomosa.”
Oop! We’re back to the car rides again. Travelling has certainly been central to the Adams’ career, and they tell us that this whole filmmaking adventure actually started when John and Toby decided to take a year off and travel around in an RV, while home-schooling the children, who were about 11 and 6 years old at the time.
“Instead of waiting for others to give us permission, [we were like] ‘let’s just do something we want to do’,” Toby says. “The kids were interested in acting. So we just set off on the road in 2010 for a year and we shot our first film Rumble Strips and we were just absolutely hooked!”
Rumble Strips follows a mother who is arrested for growing marijuana and takes her two young daughters on an RV trip before she’s sentenced, so they can be prepared for her absence. Though their movies all have very different tones and fit into different genres, that central theme of family is always present, whether it’s the uncle/niece dynamic in their fun 2014 drama Knuckle Jack or the incredible bond between mother and daughter in The Deeper You Dig and Hellbender, family is key. And for the Adams, that’s both in front of the camera and behind.
Indeed, for Where The Devil Roams, even the extended family and their community were called into arms. “We live in a very small rural town and a lot of times people just come up to us and say ‘will you please kill me in your movie?’ And so who are we to deny them?!” Toby laughs. “It was so much fun and that’s very much in our DNA – we love to use what is around us. And there were a lot of enthusiastic people who were wonderful.”
Another honorary family member who appears in the film is the Chevy that the central family drives (we told you we’d get back to that) – which is actually John’s dad’s car and was a linchpin in the filming process: “[Filming] began with the 1931 Chevy,” Toby nods.”There were times we had to give it a little push, but that baby just was our star.”
“Everybody was up for Christmas,” John continues the story. “There was a snowstorm and we were like ‘oh my god, this would be great, let’s give it a try’, so we put the Chevy up on a flatbed and my brother-in-law drove the truck pulling us all along. I sat in the back filming and these guys were in the car and it was great!”
Though Where The Devil Roams is a slightly bigger production than some of their previous movies, the community and family vibe in creating it was still very much apparent. “This film was still like a small Adams Family Film,” Zelda nods. “Maybe we had an extra dollar or two to pay for the clothes and the wood that would build our sets, but it was still John, Lulu and Alex sweating their balls off making those sets. It was still us with a broken tripod and two tiny little mics. So it still felt like it was very true to our Adams Family Films style, which almost resembles the family travelling on the carnival circuit, just trying to get by with the little things that they have.”
Speaking of that Adams Family Films style, it truly is unique and we can’t help but ask them how they would define that style: “I tend to think of us as like a band of misfit filmmakers,” answers Toby. “I guess I like the word misfit. I think there is something that feels a little bit like an outsider for us, but we are very much a ragtag team.”
“I hope people think that our films are honest,” John adds. “Like with Hellbender we tried to be honest about a mother-daughter relationship, with The Deeper You Dig we tried to be honest about guilt and loss, and in this film, we’re trying to be honest about what true love is, which is no matter how fucked everything is, love is always being able to forgive. But this really takes it to a dark place…”
Speaking of going to a dark place, Where The Devil Roams certainly broaches those murky corners, especially when the movie delves into Seven’s past as a war doctor (in one scene, Seven even decapitates a fellow soldier), which is told via flashbacks. “I love the World War One flashbacks, I think they’re really cool,” says Toby. “I think that’s where our most brutal violence comes. I think it’s the most brutal any of our films have ever been, particularly in the last World War One flashback [with the decapitiation], which is actually Zelda’s boyfriend. I feel so bad because when his mother sees that she’s just going to hate us!”
“It’s perfect for me because people say ‘how did you deal with Zelda’s first boyfriend?’ and I’m going to say ‘I cut his head off’,” John laughs. “That’s going to be it. The end of the conversation, so that people are very uncomfortable…”
What the Adams are finding uncomfortable right now (in a good way) is the wait for the movie to be released to wider audiences: “We’re very nervous because nobody has seen it until just now so we’re all excited but definitely nervous!” Toby laughs.
“This is our horror movie. Now when we roll it out, we’re just fucking terrified!” John says. “This is where it’s fun for us.”
The movie will be showing at this year’s FrightFest and the only people who will be terrified are audiences because the Adams have hit the nail on the head once again with Where The Devil Roams – bringing horror, heart, and humour all into one glorious genre rollercoaster of a carnival ride.
Where The Devil Roams will be showing at FrightFest in London on 25 August. Get your tickets here.