• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Late Night with the Devil comes to us from the writing/directing team of Cameron and Colin Cairnes, two brothers who’ve quietly made a name for themselves in the Australian indie film circuit. But of course the big draw here is star and exec producer David Dastmalchian. If you’re not familiar with him or his work, yes you are.

What we’ve got here is a “found footage” horror, in which a recorded television broadcast is intercut with behind-the-scenes footage of what happened in between commercial breaks. We lay our scene in the ’70s, at a time when “Dungeons and Dragons” and The Exorcist have brought on a Satanic Panic all throughout the USA. Dastmalchian plays Jack Delroy, a talk show host who enjoys a meteoric rise to stardom, though his ratings have always come a distant second to Johnny Carson. It doesn’t help that Jack has ties to an exclusive club of wealthy elites that may or may not be a devil-worshiping cult.

Things go further downhill with the passing of Jack’s wife (Madeleine, played by Georgina Haig), who strangely passed away from lung cancer even though she never smoked. A year later, Jack is still deep in mourning, and experiments with raunchier and more controversial material have only driven his ratings lower.

Cut to Halloween of 1977. It’s sweeps week, and the ratings of this episode could make or break Jack’s show. His solution: Host a paranormal-themed episode. The guests are as follows.

  • Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a psychic medium who may or may not be a fraud.
  • Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss), a retired magician who’s turned his efforts toward debunking the strange and fantastic.
  • Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a young girl who may or may not be demonically possessed after a Satanic cult committed mass suicide, leaving her the lone survivor.
  • Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), a parapsychologist who’s taken custody of Lilly after writing and publishing a book about her.

There’s a lot to unpack here. We may as well start with Jack Delroy himself.

First of all, Jack is the kind of grieving husband who would give the world for one more minute with his dead wife. On top of that, he’s the kind of man who would do literally anything to be #1 in the ratings. On both counts, he’s exactly the kind of man we might expect to sell his soul to the devil. So what we’ve got here is a riff on the classic Faustian archetype, in which a television host gives free rein to a literal demon in exchange for a show that all of America will tune in for. Even if there was never a contract signed, the give-and-take is still there nonetheless.

The Faustian angle is taken even further as we watch Jack and Dr. June contrast with each other. For one thing, Jack is a rich widower and Dr. June is an attractive young woman who seems to know him personally, so there’s open speculation as to whether they might secretly be a romantic item or drifting in that direction. More importantly, both of them are dealing with potentially satanic powers for their own benefit — Dr. June for her book, Jack for his show. It’s genuinely compelling to watch the both of them negotiate with each other over how far they’re willing to go, especially in those moments when Dr. June wants to pull the plug and Jack wants to keep going.

That said, it’s an open question as to whether there’s any real danger at all. Is Lilly really possessed? Is Dr. June a charlatan? Maybe Christou really is psychic, or maybe he’s staging everything to make himself look good. Maybe Jack is staging everything, or maybe his producer (Leo, played by Josh Quong Tart) is staging everything with Jack none the wiser. It certainly helps that we’ve got a professional skeptic on hand to explain how everything might be staged, but we can’t discount the possibility that he’s a closed-minded pompous jackass who would deny anything to preserve his own ego.

As with the vast majority of found-footage horror films, what we’ve got here is a slow burn with a gradual sprinkling of weird little anomalies, building up to a mind-blowing gut-churning climax. That said, it helps that the story is set in the fast-paced world of TV production, which helps bring some energy to the proceedings. I might add that all the action is confined to a TV set, which makes for a nicely effective potboiler. More importantly, the film skillfully plays with ambiguity, throwing out so many questions and possibilities and moral ambiguities that we can have fun trying to sort everything out in between major developments.

We’ve got Leo the producer, who would burn the whole studio down if it somehow got him a 50-share and a five-year renewal. We’ve got Gus (Rhys Auteri), Jack’s comedic sidekick, a God-fearing Christian who’s bought completely into the Satanic Panic, skittish about the paranormal subject matter and scared to death of what could happen next. We’ve got Carmichael, who would say or do anything to debunk all the paranormal shenanigans.

All these different players jockeying for power and influence over what happens on air, and who’s caught in the middle? Well, there’s obviously Lilly, a poor traumatized girl who doesn’t have much of any control over the adults around her, never mind the demon that may or may not be possessing her. There’s also Dr. June, who keeps struggling to choose between promoting her book and protecting Lilly. But far more importantly, who’s really caught in the middle here is the audience. Which, in this case, literally and directly means us.

Ultimately, the arbiter for all of this is Jack Delroy. It’s his show running live on the air, so it’s his choice who gets the airtime to make their case. It’s his choice as to whether his viewers are exposed to satanic influence, a blowhard skeptic, or maybe even something else entirely. It’s his choice as to how far this young girl gets exploited as an attraction for his show. It’s a heavy responsibility, especially since Jack himself may not know exactly what he’s dealing with. What’s worse, Jack could potentially be motivated by external factors such as ratings, money, celebrity status, or closure for his dead wife. And that’s assuming he’s not playing everyone else as part of some “candid camera” stunt.

All of this leads to some fascinating ruminations about the nature and purpose of entertainment, the cost of fame and success, cultural media’s impact on society at large, what power and responsibility artists have, and so on and so forth. But of course, all these philosophical ruminations and moral/ethical debates don’t amount to much if the payoff isn’t worth all the setup. And in my estimation… well, of course it’s tough to sufficiently explain without spoilers, but whoo boy.

I’ll grant that the CGI is about on par with most other no-budget horror films nowadays, but the creativity and brutality on display are nicely impressive. I might add that the practical effects are impressively gruesome, those looked great. But far more importantly, the third act introduces potentially mind-altering plot devices that lead the audience to wonder how much actually happened and how much is the movie fucking with our heads. It’s superbly done.

On a miscellaneous note, kudos for getting Michael Ironside to serve as our narrator. Great choice.

All told, Late Night with the Devil is a trip. It’s a horror film that delivers psychological tension, intellectual conflict, and unnerving inconsistencies, ramping up to the batshit visceral terror of the climax. This one kept me engaged and on my toes, struggling to figure out who was correct and what was going on, which is a huge accomplishment for a found-footage horror.

With every other found footage horror movie I’ve ever seen (except for Cloverfield and V/H/S, both of which left me with crippling motion sickness), I went through most of the runtime bored out of my mind, screaming at the filmmakers to skip to the end and get on with it already. That didn’t happen here. I’m quite sure this is the first time I’ve ever seen a found-footage horror movie that kept me engrossed from start to finish. That has to be worth a full recommendation.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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