Late Night with the Devil (2024)

Sly ‘Devil’ puts the darkness into late night

The ingenious “Late Night with the Devil” is arguably among the best satires ever of television and our obsession with it. And to pull it off within the realm of the horror genre only adds to the deliciousness of a movie that is so much a representation of a particular time and place that it feels like a docudrama.

The 1970s verisimilitude is very much owing to the costumes and meticulous set designs, both of which are Oscar-worthy, but it extends even further into characterizations of celebrity and how the thirst for fame and fortune results in the ultimate con game. Even better, our complicity in it.

It’s a subject that has fascinated writing-directing siblings Cameron and Colin Cairnes (“100 Bloody Acres”) since they experienced their Reese’s moment growing up in Brisbane. What would happen, they wondered, if we combined our love for the great horror movies of the 1970s with the machinations of the era’s most-watched Australian talk show host, Brooklyn native Don Lane? The answer?

I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but in my opinion, it’s the most original, daring and ambitious example of its kind since the Golden Era of “The Exorcist,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Carrie” and “The Shining.” No less than Stephen King, author of the latter two’s source novels, deems it “brilliant.” Who am I to argue with the “King of Horror”? Besides, he’s right, it IS “impossible to take your eyes off.”

And for much of the movie’s compact 93 minutes, your peepers are fixed on “Oppenheimer’s” David Dastmalchian, superb as Jack Delroy, a syndicated talk show host in a futile six-year pursuit of Johnny Carson in the late-night ratings. With cancellation looming, an opening montage depicting a brief history of “Night Owls” informs us that just one year out from its highest-rated installment (an interview with Jack’s terminally ill wife, Madeleine) it’s fallen far, far behind “The Tonight Show.”

Desperate, Jack and executive producer, Leo Fiske (Josh Quong Tart), assemble an occult-themed Halloween extravaganza for the start of November sweeps. It’s a last “stab” featuring such guests as the popular psychic, Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), bombastic supernatural denier, Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss), and “paranormal” psychologist June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) accompanied by her latest subject, 13-year-old cult survivor, Lilly (Ingrid Torelli). As promised, anything can happen. And it does.

The Cairneses take inventiveness to the nth degree, staging a production in the style of “The Blair Witch Project,” as found footage that hasn’t been seen since it originally aired on Oct. 31, 1977. It unfolds in real time and follows the rote late-night format of an opening monologue and banter with the bandleader/straight man (Rhys Auteri as Gus) before welcoming that night’s guests one by one. During the multitude of “more to come” commercial breaks, we’re made privy – a la “The Larry Sanders Show” – to the backstage intrigue, where people stop play-acting for the cameras and commence acting real, largely in the form of airing grievances.

The behind-the-curtain scenes are shot in widescreen black and white, while the actual show is presented in color in the boxy format typical of the era. What proves most seductive is the impeccable attention to detail, from Otello Stolfo’s set designs to Stephanie Hooke’s period costumes. Both are clearly referencing the days of Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett, from the abundant autumnal colors to the absence of the traditional hosting desk. There’s also a lot of Cavett in Dastmalchian’s portrayal of Jack as a folksy Midwesterner with a sharp wit and a knack for improv when content goes off-script, which is often. And like the “The Dick Cavett Show,” the conversation tends toward the cerebral, with guests often getting testy with each other over controversial issues.

You suspect the Cairneses and their crew spent a lot of time studying “Cavett” clips on YouTube, and it shows in the dozens of pop culture references: Billy Carter, Reggie Jackson and then recently opened World Trade Center, whose twin towers feature prominently in the show’s distinctive owl logo. But Cavett never offered up an episode like this one in which demons are fast at work and the guests might not survive the night.

All the actors are pitch-perfect, but it’s the young Torelli who excels in quality and scope. She’s hilarious and more than a little terrifying as the “possessed” child of religious cult leader D’Abo, who perished a few years earlier when he and all of his followers (but one) self-immolated in protest of threatened government crackdowns. Torelli’s ability to project the image of a sweet, shy everyday teen one minute and a demonic Linda Blair the next is impressive. But it’s the way she uses her expressive eyes to articulate the war between good and evil raging inside her head (she calls the malevolent voice Mr. Wiggles) that elicits outbursts of nervous laughter.

Still, you marvel over Dastmalchian. It’s an utterly lived-in performance enhanced by a cheesy beige suit and weird inordinately dark, structured hair. He imbues Jack with vast amounts of humor, compassion and more than a splash of ruthlessness. And it’s that last trait that lends itself so well to the film’s ultimate message about television being very much like a magic act. What we see is rarely the truth. Everyone seems to have an agenda and will unscrupulously use any means necessary to implement it. But how far will they go? If “Late Night with the Devil” is any indication, the answer is, pretty far. In more ways than one, it’s bloody frightening.

Movie review

Late Night with the Devil

Rated: R for violent content, a sexual reference, some gore, language

Cast: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Ingrid Torelli, Rhys Auteri, Fayssal Bazzi, Josh Quong Tart and Georgina Heig

Directors: Cameron and Colin Cairnes

Writers: Cameron and Colin Cairnes

Runtime: 93 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: A-

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