[SXSW 2023 Review] 'Late Night with the Devil' Transforms Late Night Entertainment into a Hellish Nightmare
Taking viewers way back to the Satanic Panic era of the late 1970s, writers/directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes compelling new horror feature, Late Night with the Devil, presents a faux live broadcast from Hell that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “knock ‘em dead”.
Set in 1977, Late Night with the Devil invites viewers to bear witness to the legendary footage of a live Halloween episode of talk show “Night Owls”, starring the enigmatic David Dastmalchian as host Jack Delroy. Desperate to save his career (and finally top Johnny Carson’s ratings), Jack plans to delve into the occult with a guest list of psychics, magicians, and even a supposedly possessed young girl (with a scene-stealing performance by Ingrid Torelli). What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Everything can and does, making for an unmitigated disaster drenched in shocking horror.
Late Night with the Devil plays like Ghostwatch meets an episode of Johnny Carson (the former has its fingerprints all over this). What begins as spooky fun gradually descends into nightmarish terror. Part of the film’s success comes from just how genuine it all feels. If it weren’t for Dastmalchian’s well-known presence, you might think you really had stumbled on some lost tape from the 70s. The filmmakers expertly craft an aesthetic befitting of the era, from the grainy (occasionally warbling) footage to the heavy browns of the set splashed with a bit of rainbow color. The various title cards which pop up after commercial breaks. The shooting style filled with slow zooms. The Cairnes brothers nail the late-night talk show vibe.
At the head of this supernatural debacle is Jack in a role that Dastmalchian was born to play. No stranger to hosting—looking at you, Fangoria Chainsaw Awards—Dastmalchian steps right into the skin of Jack Delroy with ease, bringing to life a man we empathize with while also screaming “have you lost your mind, Jack?” Here is a guy wrecked by the grief of losing his wife, Madeleine (Georgina Haig) to cancer. An opening montage gives us everything we need to know about his troubled life, from Madeline to his dying career and his mysterious dealings with a powerful men’s only club known as The Grove. You may see stars sometimes and think, “what a life,” but through Jack—and a magnetic performance from Dastmalchian—the Cairnes brothers give us insight into the Hollywood journey and just how quickly this town will cut someone’s throat with a sacrificial dagger in the name of entertainment.
In-between increasingly unnerving antics, the film takes us behind the scenes with black and white footage detailing the chaos happening off-camera. As someone who has worked on live TV, I can confidently say Late Night with the Devil captures the stressful insanity of that environment to a T. There’s little time for Jack or the crew to deal with whatever isn’t going right—i.e. everything—because, as they say, the show must go on. Anxiety, desperation, and the occult? Not exactly a great cocktail mix…unless you’re us, the audience, getting to drink in this utter catastrophe.
By presenting itself as a faux late night talk show with a live audience, Late Night with the Devil takes on another level of eeriness in how we become Jack’s audience. He speaks directly to us. As do his guests. As does the supernatural evil which may or may not be present. Seductive writing and a hypnotic vibe sucks you deeper and deeper into the film as the show progresses, until you feel like you’re a part of it. I found myself wanting to look away during a hypnosis segment, for fear it might actually work on me. Late Night with the Devil puts you under a spell, at once striking in its believability yet at times playing like a nightmarish fever dream you can’t wake up from. With this film, the Cairnes brothers ignite the slow burn of a Jack-O-lantern candle, blurring the lines of reality on their way to a jaw-dropping conclusion that rewards patience in bloody spades.
I would watch a lot more late-night talk shows if they were like Late Night with the Devil.
Tense. Frightening. And sprinkled with devilish humor, Late Night with the Devil is a ritualistic experience in which the power of Satan compels you to watch and keep on watching. The Cairnes brothers have summoned an edge-of-your-seat horror show destined to become a new Halloween favorite.
By Matt Konopka
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