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Film Review: Late Night with the Devil

Late Night with the Devil answers the question: What would happen if Larry Sanders sold his soul for better ratings?

Late Night with the Devil cleverly exploits the horror genre’s ability to take a metaphor and treat it literally. We all know that TV celebrities figuratively sell their souls for higher ratings, so what would happen if one of them actually did? The film’s answer to that question is as much satire as horror – a mashup of Network and The Exorcist, playing like an episode of The Larry Sanders Show if the eponymous protagonist had signed a pact with Satan. Unfolding in real time, it’s a slow burn that holds attention with backstage stabs at amoral aspects of the entertainment industry before finally delivering the expected pandemonium in the final act. Fans of indie horror will find this IFC Films release worth catching in theatres before it finds its way to the company’s streaming service in April.


Late Night with the Devil Review: That ’70s Show!

Late Night with the Devil Film Review
Lilly (Ingrid Torelli) is ready for her closeup.

Late Night with the Devil begins with a brief newsreel-type montage describing the history of Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), host of a 1970s late-night talk show titled Night Owls. With Jack’s five-year contract about to run out, the show’s ratings are dropping, so in a desperate attempt to stay on the air, Jack presents a Halloween-night special featuring a psychic, a skeptic, and – the obvious highlight – a parapsychologist with a possessed young girl. Warning signs begin almost immediately, but Jack and his producer push on regardless, goading the increasingly reluctant parapsychologist to summon the demon lurking within her patient…

The majority of Late Night with the Devil is presented as if we are watching a master tape of the live broadcast, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of Jack and his producer trying to keep the show going. The approach, which creates a tremendous sense of immediacy and credibility, has been called “found footage,” but it has little in common with The Blair Witch Project and its various progeny.

Late Night with the Devil feels more like a mockumentary, which does a great job, both aesthetically and technically, of simulating 1970s television entertainment. Not only is the broadcast portion presented in the old-fashioned 1.33 aspect ratio; the situations and characters feel as if lifted from shows of the era. Professional skeptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) is clearly based on James Randi (a.k.a The Amazing Randi), who became a prominent debunker of psychic phenomenon after a successful career as a magician. One-named psychic Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) sounds like Kreskin combined with Uri Geller. The briefly glimpsed Satanist (Steve Mouzakis) recalls Anton Lavey. And Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), who survived the satanic cult’s self-immolation, comes across like a possessed member of the Manson Family.

The eye at the center of this storm is David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy. The actor catches all sides of the character: both the persona he presents to his TV audience and the reality lurking off-camera. Significantly, the differences are carefully shaded, more like a dimmer switch than a simple on-and-off. Sure, the guy needs ratings, and he knows he is pushing too hard, but he is too desperate to back off even when he knows he should.

The supporting cast are equally convincing if not given as much opportunity for nuance. Bliss infuses Haig with an arrogance that has us rooting against him even when we want him to be right, and Bazzi manages to make Christou sympathetic even though we are pretty sure he’s a fake. Best of all is Torelli, who captures an eerie sense of the uncanny as Lilly. Long before her parapsychologist evokes the demon inside her, Lilly displays an off-kilter emotional affect that is just wrong enough to set us on edge: she seems too eager to make eye contact with the camera, too happy about being put on display for reasons that should have traumatized her into isolation and solitude.


Late Night with the Devil Review: The Perils of Live TV

Late Night with the Devil review
Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian, center) convinces parapsychologist June Rose-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) to put Lilly (Ingrid Torelli) into a trance while Gus (Rhys Auteri) and Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) watch from the background.

Framing Late Night with the Devil as a live broadcast is an obvious gambit. It provides a useful structure for presenting the story, but it presents an obvious challenge: the horror has to manifest extremely gradually; if things start to go off the rails too early, the station would pull the plug long before the climax, leaving the audience staring at a “Please Stand By” card.

Writer-directors Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes navigate around this obstacle fairly well by playing with audience expectations. After apparently confirming our suspicion that Christou is a charlatan, the film has him put on a convincing display – and then drops hints about how even that might have been faked. Later, Haig himself uses hypnosis to create illusions that shock the show’s cast and crew – along with the television audience at home watching Night Owl and, by extension, the real-life audience watching Late Night with the Devil. This not only foreshadows the horror to come; it also forces us to question the reality of everything we see from that point onward. How can we believe any of this is real when Haig has just proven we can be hypnotized into seeing anything?

The inclusion of behind-the-scenes footage is less successful. These scenes are shot in a standard feature-film style that in no way suggests a cinéma vérité depiction of action as it actually unfolds. Moreover, Delroy and his producer are far too candid for us to believe a documentary crew is pointing cameras and microphones at them. This breakdown of the film’s conceit that we are seeing events unfold in front of live cameras extends to the somewhat surreal ending; in that case, however, we can charitably assume that we are being swept up into some kind of hallucinatory vision along the lines of Haig’s earlier hypnosis demonstration.


Late Night with the Devil Review: Conclusion

Late Night with the Devil Review
Lilly provides a glimpse of the demon possessing her.

Although it certainly takes its time, All Hell does eventually break loose in Late Night with the Devil, delivering everything one could expect along with a few juicy surprises. What really makes it work is not just the special effects but the characters’ baffled reactions (skeptic Haig’s response is particularly hilarious if gruesomely ineffective).

Nevertheless, Late Night with the Devil demands considerable patience from its audience. The destination is worth the journey. Just bear in mind that the journey is more show biz tell-all than horror movie; the events could have been presented as a straight drama about what happens when the quest to grasp the brass ring ends in tragedy. The film’s joke is that, in this case, the brass ring is a knocker that summons the Devil.

Late Night with the Devil (2023)
3

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

Late Night with the Devil posterLate Night with the Devil is a clever combo of showbiz satire and satanic scares that takes a while to pay off but is worth the wait.

Cast: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Ingrid Torelli, Fayssal Bazzi.

Credits: Written & Directed by Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes. Produced by Mat Govoni, Adam White,John Molloy, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Derek Dauchy. Cinematography by Matthew Temple. Edited by Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes. Music by Glenn Richards. Rated R. 93 mins. Production companies: Image Nation Abu Dhabi, VicScreen, AGC Studios, Good Fiend Films, Future Pictures, Spooky Pictures. Released in U.S. theatres by IFC Films on March 22, 2024.

Note: The British anthology show Inside Number 9 broadcast an episode last year titled “3×3,” which used a similar strategy, though in that case it was a live game show that turned horrific. The two productions are radically different, but for what it’s worth the half-hour television episode is considerably more concise in its presentation.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.