Film reviews and more since 2009

Late Night with the Devil (2024) review

Dir. Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

Fans of analog horror and the ongoing webseries Local 58 like myself will almost surely revel in the visual charms, idiosyncrasies, and palpable terror afforded by Late Night with the Devil.

The high-concept horror film is the work of Australian brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes, who fully commit to the bit. This is a project that converges documentary filmmaking with found footage techniques all illustrated to give the look and feel that one is watching this demented episode of late night television on an old TV set. Of course, with most viewers set to watch this on their TV at home, I recommend turning off all the lights in effort to set a true mood. The beauty of analog horror is the idea that malevolent forces beyond your control have overtaken the images on your TV. Do yourself a favor and make an already unnerving film even more-so.

Late Night with the Devil opens with an eight-minute black-and-white clip-show contextualizing the 1970s and the powerful personalities on TV that defined the “Me Decade.” Helping quell the anxieties of people seeing civil and racial unrest in the streets is Jack Delory (David Dastmalchian), the unctuous host of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, a variety/talk program that airs during the witching hour. The program airs weekdays to “help an anxious nation forget its troubles,” says narrator Michael Ironside.

Ironside’s narration contextualizes many things for us in a short amount of time. For one, it looks at how Delroy’s success routinely failed to match that of Johnny Carson’s. More concerningly, it also shows Delroy’s membership in a mysterious cult known as “The Grove,” a mysterious men-only club that holds its meetings deep in the California woods (ala the Bohemian Grove). Sometime after, Delroy’s wife, Madeleine, dies of cancer, and Night Owls and its host takes an indefinite sabbatical.

The story itself officially takes place on Halloween night in 1977, and Delroy’s network is in the middle of Sweeps Week. The holiday has prompted the crew to line up guests related to the supernatural in one way or another. Among them are a psychic named Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), whose bit involves reading the minds of the audience, and Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss), a former-magician-turned-smarmy-skeptic who intends to debunk any woo-woo with which he’s faced.

Set to round out the show is a parapsychologist author named Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), who is promoting a new book. In tow with Dr. Ross-Mitchell is the subject of her work, Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a teen girl with an ominous stare who was the lone survivor of a Satanic church’s mass suicide. Lilly claims she’s afflicted by a demon she’s named “Mr. Wriggles.” Seeing an opportunity for ratings gold, Jack forgoes the stern warnings from Lilly’s caretaker and insists that Lilly use Mr. Wriggles to summon some black magic for the live studio audience.

Late Night with the Devil unfolds from the perspective of its television airing — or, “a recently rediscovered master tape of what went to air that night,” as the prologue puts it — with behind-the-scenes glimpses of Delroy’s set filling the place of commercials. The brothers Cairnes’ approach to the material has a lot in common with Martin Scorsese’s perennially underrated The King of Comedy, a movie that revolved around a television host’s loosening grip on reality. Here, Delroy is the clear-headed, if arrogant, one, and it’s the unseen demonic forces’ impact on the show that is loosening the audience’s grip on reality.

Late Night with the Devil‘s unnervingly entertaining premise — so much so that the signals to commercial feel as frustrating as they do when you’re in the middle of a great show — is made more powerful thanks to an outstanding cornucopia of aesthetically gorgeous touches. Otello Stolfo’s production design coalesce with Stephanie Hooke’s costumes to give that shag-carpet, muted color palette appearance for which the 1970s were known. The two-fold score is handled by Roscoe James Irwin and Glenn Richards while the in-house stage-music is conducted by Rhys Auteri, both of which evoking the era with heavy horns and jazzy compositions.

At the center of it all is David Dastmalchian, who strikes the perfect balance of being both charismatic and arrogant, with a personality both gravitational yet alienating. Dastmalchian has quietly become a rising figure in the horror landscape; his thinly-veiled reference to Svengoolie in the film shows how deep his connection truly is. Here, he gets the opportunity to create a fascinating yet irksome individual whose reckless abandon and quest for ratings threatens to sabotage his entire production.

I was so very close to making Late Night with the Devil my first four-star movie of the year. Alas, it’s the film’s climax that comes precariously close to undoing much of what made it work up until that point, which was its commitment to its concept. The brothers Cairnes pull the old trick of breaking down our perception of reality in the final minutes, which simply doesn’t make sense given we are watching the original print of this episode allegedly filmed/aired in 1977. It disrupts the continuity. Its inclusion breaks the verisimilitude. Furthermore, I’m not even quite sure it works from a logic standpoint.

Some films can be undone by their endings. Thankfully, Late Night with the Devil builds up enough equity with viewers that it’s able to weather its own a self-caused storm while still being one of the most inventive horror films of the year.

NOTE: Late Night with the Devil is now streaming on Shudder and AMC+.

Starring: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Ingrid Torelli, Rhys Auteri, Fayssal Bazzi, and Georgina Haig. Narrated by: Michael Ironside. Directed by: Colin and Cameron Cairnes.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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