Moving Pictures
Jun 13, 2024, 06:27AM

Hell Hole to Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival

It’s dark, bloody and unsettling; if it’s sometimes slow, it’s also strange enough that the pacing works.

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One of America’s more interesting filmmaking collectives is bringing new work to the festival circuit this summer. The Adams Family will premiere Hell Hole at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, a tale of a monster unleashed by a fracking crew in the Carpathian Mountains. A family who make movies together, it’ll be the Adams’ eighth film, and ahead of that release it’s worth looking back at their most recent work, last year’s Where the Devil Roams.

While the family collaborates on all aspects of their films, much of the directing and writing is done by husband-and-wife team John Adams and Toby Poser. Their daughter Zelda handles much of the camerawork, and all three typically star in their films, sometimes accompanied by their other daughter, Lulu. For almost 15 years they’ve traveled the United States as a family, and made films together incorporating people and places they encountered on their journeys. Their first feature, Rumblestrips, was completed in 2010; their fifth, 2019’s The Deeper You Dig, was their first foray into horror.

2021’s Hellbender was a thematic and technical advance, an impressive mythopoeic film about a monstrous mother-daughter duo. Where the Devil Roams is a step further, a period piece set during the Great Depression, following a small family of murderers who perform with an unconventional traveling carnival of tattooed ladies and self-mutilating magicians. Seven (John Adams) has shell shock from WWI; his current wife, Maggie (Poser), leads them in righteous killing of the unjust and exploitative among the well-to-do, and plans for the future of their mute daughter Eve (Zelda Adams). Eve has learned the secret of the carnival’s horrific magician, and she may prove to be her parents’ only hope as their violence comes home to roost.

You can watch the film on the ad-supported streaming service Tubi, or ad-free on video-on-demand. Tubi, with ad breaks every 15 minutes, is an appropriate service to host the movie: as though you’re watching this strange film on some late-night cable channel, something thing you land on at random and mesmerizes you by its oddity. It’s the sort of movie you’d find in a certain kind of video store 30 years ago, not a corporate chain (that’d be Netflix or Disney+), not the upscale single-location home for cinephiles (the Criterion Channel), not the hole-in-the-wall dive filled with horror films and foreign exploitation movies (Shudder or Midnight Pulp), and not your local anime store (Crunchyroll) or public library (Kanopy). Tubi’s a place you might find in a surprisingly deep storefront where somebody got a deal on rent, maybe in a dying shopping mall or downtown side street, someplace filled with yellowing VHS covers from films you’ve never heard of. Where, among low-budget oddities and entertaining schlock, you could find hidden gems and unpredictable hypnotically-intense indie weirdness.

That’s the feel of Where the Devil Roams: start it up, and you’re in another world, and wonder that anybody could’ve put together such an off-kilter story, and wonder how it hangs together so well. There’s a feel to the movie something like Clive Barker on his best days, with its odd framing sequence and glimpses of strange magic. As with their last couple of films, the horror story has moments that imply a world with its own incomprehensible rules, while still focusing on character. Magic is strange, but the people we follow are understandable and engaging. We know who they are and what they want, and sometimes see where they’re going. More often we’re surprised.

The cool, desaturated colors build a bare-bones world, a world of poverty in which people are overwhelmed by the vastness of a much less populated America. The natural world’s a grand, though, brought out in stunning photography with moody shadow-filled lighting. Sometimes the Adamses play with visual style, bleaching colors until the picture’s almost black-and-white, or adding grain so it looks like an unrestored 30s film. The stylization’s effective if occasionally overwhelming, but works to help create a sense of period on a budget: a few physical props and costumes put us in the 1930s, and looking at them through the echo of an older visual style, we feel we’re someplace we don’t know or understand.

The carnival’s a great and useful image for the film. There’s something about it less symbolic than mythic; it doesn’t have one metaphorical meaning but many, all at the same time. It’s entertainment for pay, it’s an extended family, it’s a little world of its own. It’s a place of wonder, where you can find a magician with a satanic spell based on a piece of doggerel like something out of a Universal horror film.

The story told about this odd family within an odder family is unconventionally paced, with minimal exposition. A plot point about Eve’s disability looks ahead to the ending as soon as it’s introduced, so there’s some predictability in the film. But it ends with a surrealism unexpected and foreshadowed: you understand generally what the shape of the ending will be, but the way it plays out is startling. There are ambitions beyond a typical low-budget horror film.

And this is horror. It’s dark, bloody and unsettling; if it’s sometimes slow, it’s also strange enough that the pacing works. It’s stuffed with ideas about narrative structure in a way most genre movies aren’t. It’s like an old-fashioned tale, where everything’s slightly wrong in a disturbing but compelling way, but more polished. It’s an ambitious work by a small team. 


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