Where the Devil Roams (2023)

By Joe Miller

I told myself I was going to the Telluride Horror Show on a mission.

I teach film at a state university in the American Deep South, and in that role I like to expose students to films that go beyond movies, films that have a kind of art to them, that inspire us to look at the world anew, and that stick with us for days after viewing—“the most independent, experimental, risky, political cinema,” in the words of this journal’s manifesto. I love it when I turn on the lights after we’ve watched a film and my students are looking back at me completely dumbfounded. And to this end, I’ve come to appreciate horror as a kind of gateway genre, a natural stepping stone toward a higher cinephelia.

My love for horror is often the only cinematic thing I have in common with my students at the beginning of any given semester. We live in a region where for hundreds of miles there are nothing but multiplexes all showing the same 12 or 15 Hollywood movies, usually superhero flicks, cartoons, and insipid rom coms, but also a lot of scary movies, and in these parts, horror is about as good as it gets cinematically. Here scary movies are participatory events: the audience screams at every jump scare, and yells at the characters on the screen when they’re about to do something stupid, like open the basement door. Horror is the only genre where you have a good chance of seeing cinematic technique employed to startling and mesmerizing extremes, or being taken through breathtaking plot twists and left with ambiguous endings—especially over the last decade or so, with the ascendence of art house horror films, “elevated horror,” such as Midsommar (2019), Hereditary (2018), The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), to name a few.

So, the mission: find films, or even moments within films, that might lure students toward a more daring and deep cinema.

And there was at Telluride one such film: Where the Devil Roams (2023). It opens in grainy, scratched up black and white with a legless man ambling on his hands onto a stage to read a long poem about the devil, and then it shifts to muted color as it follows a family of carnies as they struggle across Depression-era rural New York, performing anachronistic goth song-and-dance routines, and occasionally murdering people who do wrong by them. After one such murder, the parents are themselves killed, and to save them the daughter turns to black magic, and the color slowly drains out of the film as the bloody bill for dabbling in the dark arts comes due. Their story is mysterious: much of the context for the family’s ventures is held back from the audience, leaving it to us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations. But in a film like this, the plot is in many ways beside the point; it’s a vehicle for the vision, an excuse to move the viewer through one cinematic sensation after another, from gruesome and gory body horror scenes to musical interludes that would be more at home on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball than rural 1930s America. It’s a punk revision of the past, where modern tattoos and clowns with Insane Clown Posse makeup abound, and at its core, below the violence and sickening special effects, amazingly, is a fable of unconditional familial love that closes on a shocking yet somehow hilarious and touching final image.

Where the Devil Roams was the last film I saw during the festival, screening late on Sunday night, when I was tired and, honestly, had long since given up my mission to find art. Early on in the festivities it became clear to me that this was entirely the wrong mindset to bring to the Telluride Horror Show, a festival that is unapologetically devoted to the glory of genre, and makes no pretentions of being a haven for art. This was the 14th running of the festival. It spans four days in mid-October, a spectacularly beautiful time of year in this lovely little Colorado mountain town, when the air is crisp and the aspens are ablaze in yellow. There are three screening venues, all within easy walking distance along the town’s main drag, ranging from 165 seats in the smallest to almost 600 in the largest, showing a selection of about 20 feature films and scores of shorts. There’s also a spooky-stories-around-the-campfire event, an ice cream social, and a Saturday night pig roast. It’s a laid back, cozy little festival that’s developed a loyal following, one might even say a community, with many people attending year after year. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that most of them—the overwhelming majority—wore black from head to toe. These were serious fans of horror (though, it must be said, not as boisterous as the crowds at the AMC 15 in Muscogee County, Georgia).

When I took my seat to watch Where the Devil Roams, after three days of straight up and fun genre films, I wasn’t expecting anything artsy, and was caught off guard. I left the theater unsure if I even liked it. But it stuck with me, and after I got back home, I hunted it down online and watched it again, and then again, and with each viewing I discovered more in it to ponder and marvel at—exactly what I’d hoped I’d find at the festival, and I’m eager to tell my students not only about the movie but the people who made it: it’s an Adams Family Picture show, made by an actual family named Adams—mother, father and two daughters—and together they co-wrote and co-directed the film, acted in it, operated all the production equipment, and even composed and performed the droning heavy metal soundtrack. This was their third film to appear at the Telluride Horror Show, and their seventh feature overall as a family—they’ve been making movies since their youngest, Zelda, was six years old. And while their latest feature is easily the most avant-garde and ambitious of the bunch, their earlier films, and especially their other horror films—Hellbender (2021) and The Deeper You Dig (2019)are plenty edgy in their storytelling and aggressively cinematic, with moments that are positively kaleidoscopic. Their frequent use of very long dissolves between scenes is particularly affecting and beautiful, creating seemingly impossible little ghost worlds of doubled up images that exist for a long moment and slowly fade away. My horror-loving, aspiring cinephile students need to watch Where the Devil Roams and know about the Adams Family, if only to see what’s possible, not only in cinema but in life.

Out of Darkness (2023)

Before seeing the Adams Family’s haunting symphony of the macabre, the most arresting and memorable images I’d seen at the festival, to my eye, were from Frogman (2023), the first feature by Anthony Cousins. Shot primarily on a late ‘90s, consumer-grade video camera, it follows three friends as they set out in search the infamous Frogman of Loveland, a cartoonish monster that lurks in the wetlands near a lake. I was initially put off by it; the rediscovered-lost-video conceit feels a bit tired all these years after The Blair Witch Project (1999), and the acting here seems a bit overplayed in its campiness. Yet I was continually mesmerized by the quality of image Cousins attained with his cheap, old video camera, especially when lights shine directly at the lens, overpowering the automatic exposure control. Its texture and glow is positively otherworldly, and by the third act, as the monster reveals itself more and more amid the flashes of a nighttime thunderstorm, the movie itself starts to get quite good. The monster is nothing short of a masterpiece of low budget special effects, especially when it unfurls its sticky tongue, big enough to envelop a full-grown man.

It was during Out of Darkness (2023) by Andrew Cumming, the next film I watched, that I finally saw clear to abandon the quest for art altogether, lest I spend the whole weekend searching hopelessly in the blurry backgrounds of the images on the screen for toothsome abstractions. It’s set 45,000 years in the past, and it follows a small group of early humans as they land on the shores of a rugged and inhospitable land, looking for a way to survive. When night falls, they realize they’re not alone: forms move menacingly around them in the darkness. At first, these seem to be supernatural, the way they’re presented in a horror movie vernacular, as blurs whooshing past in the night amid a swell of ominous music, but they turn out to be a small tribe of Neanderthals who are trying to survive, too, and who’ll kill to do so. Against this threat, the lowest member of the humans’ party, a woman who’d been brought along as a kind of slave or concubine, rises violently as savior, beating back the Neanderthals with crude weapons. A paleolithic period piece wasn’t the sort of film I expected to see at a horror fest, and especially one without the old trope of grunting cavemen carrying clubs and dragging women around by their hair, but instead with a woman emerging as a hero to save the tiny and vulnerable community of humans.

With this, I was beginning to see a thematic thread in all the films I’d viewed. There seemed to be a reversal here of the kinds of roles women tend to play in horror films. Though I love horror, when I look across its history and consider the genre as a whole, I see a deep gash of misogyny slashed along the length of it. More often than not, its plots have hinged on scenes of women being terrorized and brutally murdered. I grew up in the age of the slasher film, where the kids who have sex or do drugs or anything out of step with Reagan’s America are cut to shreds, and the black kids are always the first to die. As an adult, I have a keen fondness for Italian giallo, but still, when you look past all the style and cinematic mastery of this subgenre, the tautness of the storytelling and the startling twists, they’re basically all about women getting killed with big, shiny, super-sharp knives.

Yet here I was, almost halfway through a three-day horror film festival, and I had yet to see a femicide.

And this would play out through the entire weekend. By the time the credits were rolling at the end of Where the Devil Roams, my final screening on Sunday night, I realized that I could count on one hand the number of female characters I’d seen killed all weekend, and those few were done in by demons, spiders and monsters, all of which kill men and women with equanimity. Instead, the female characters in these films were, without fail, strong and dynamic, heroic: The young woman in It’s a Wonderful Knife (2023) by Tyler McIntyre, a scary retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who teams up with the town outcast, another young woman, to take down the chauvinistic and murderous mayor who’s wreaking havoc; Heather Graham’s character in Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh (2023), who comes to embody both the hero and the villain after she becomes sexually involved with a much younger patient who happens to be possessed by a demon, which he passes to her while they’re having sex (and I can’t recall having seen a film in which a female character in her 50s has an affair with a man half her age where this dynamic is not the central problem driving the plot; here, nothing is made of the age difference.) What’s more, men made up the overwhelming majority of the films’ evildoers, bad guys, and catastrophically complacent schmucks whose mistakes carried grave consequences, such as the lead in the French film Infested (2023) who brings to his housing project apartment a rare and lethal spider that quickly multiplies and terrorizes the community, or the sleepwalking father in Sleep (2023) who somnambulantly kills the dog and threatens to do the same to the newborn, or the dad in The Coffee Table (2023), who’s left alone with the baby for just a few minutes when tragedy strikes (made in Spain with just 10 days of shooting, The Coffee Table got a lot of buzz over the weekend for being the most difficult to watch, especially for anyone who has kids).

Late Night with the Devil (2023)

So, my professorial mission was paying off after all, just in a different way. While my favorite thing to do as a film professor is to turn students on to more artistic cinema, I also love to get them thinking about the role more popular and entertaining cinema plays in the human experience. One angle I like to propose to them is the notion that movies are a kind of tribal gathering place, like a bonfire in the village square, a place where we can share stories to learn, reinforce and perpetuate customs and morals. This can be a fraught proposition, especially when considering Hollywood films, because the customs and mores that movies project aren’t necessarily always the best humans can offer (again, see the misogynist thread that runs through the history of horror films). But sometimes it’s right on point, and much to my delight, the Telluride Horror Show was not only validating the positives of this this cultural bonfire idea, it seemed to be conveying a world in which a great shift in societal attitudes toward women has occurred, and that perhaps we’re moving not only toward greater equality but maybe even toward a future in which women rule. We can wish, anyway.

But more importantly for my immediate needs as a festival attendee, I at last had a point for this review, so I could finally relax and enjoy the ride. And there was plenty of ride to enjoy. For me, the most fun came with Late Night with the Devil (2023) and When Evil Lurks (2023). Oh, how I would love to see them both on. The marquee at the Columbus Park 15. The former was a rip-roaring good time, purporting to be a long-lost recording of an episode of a late-night talk show called Night Owls that was to air on Halloween night in 1977; to boost ratings and compete with Johnny Carson, the host, Jack Delroy, has lined up a holiday special about the supernatural. The whole film is the supposed uncut tape of the show, and as the show’s guests share their stories of the paranormal, a malevolent supernatural force rises from within them and unleashes its fury on the studio audience and the millions of viewers in living rooms across the country.

And the chatter about the latter among the festival diehards was that this latest offering by Argentine master of the macabre Demián Rugna was emerging from the festival circuit as the best horror film of the year, full-stop, and I’m not going to disagree. It’s a relentlessly fast-paced and hard-driving battle with and flight from evil. The make-up and special effects are stomach churning, and the sustained intensity of the whole film is like a totally kick-ass rock concert. It does feature one of the only femicides I saw all weekend, but, like I said, she was done in by someone possessed, and she herself came back as a zombie under control of the demon. I’m going to recommend to my horror-loving students that they check it out online. It might not be art, or even a steppingstone toward art, but it’s an absolutely thrilling cinematic experience, and after all, when you boil it all down, isn’t that what cinephilia is all about?