More than a fun genre exercise, this groovy pseudo-mockumentary threads the needle of darkly funny and crushingly human.
The Devil is having a big moment right now. More specifically, interest in the Satanic Panic of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s is having a surge. And it is not hard to see why: the current cultural obsession with destructive, harmful conspiracy theories bears a close resemblance to the flurry of half-truths and outright lies that led to a nation obsessed with and terrified of underground Satanic cabals that, in reality, never seemed to have existed.
No less than three films at this year’s SXSW deal with this phenomenon, both documentaries and narratives. This includes Late Night With the Devil, a pseudo-mockumentary film that is a big send up of the Satanic Panic and the media’s portion of feeding into the mania. But Late Night does a lot more than simply parroting or calling out the phenomenon on its mind. It also is unnervingly tense, utilizing slow-burn pacing and real-time reveals to unravel a story moment to moment, never quite revealing its full hand until the end. By withholding and building anticipation, Late Night With the Devil lives into the lurking menace that defined the moral panic, and utilizes real-life tension for maximum impact.
Late Night centers on the story of Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of the fictional Night Owls, a late night talk show that was designed as a direct competitor to Johnny Carson. As explained in an exctended opening documentary segment (narrated by Michael Ironside, no less), Delroy had an immediate rise and then gradual decline in popularity, especially after the death of his wife caused his show to become darker and more cynical. Desperate to prove his relevance, Jack designs one big final attempt to overcome the king of late night: a particularly spooky Halloween episode of Night Owls that just happens to line up with sweeps week, attempting to draw eyeballs away by tapping into occult concerns.
After the intro, the film is told in alternating footage of the “actual” broadcast, with black and white behind-the-scenes footage spliced in to fill in what happened during commercial breaks. Thus the flow of the film hits a real time pacing, with things unraveling through the progress of the live show. The show opens with a pair of competing performers: a medium who claims he can speak to the dead and a professional skeptic, a clear analogue to the Amazing Randi, right down to the amazing facial hair.
But the centerpiece of the night is an interview with a paranormal psychologist and a patient whom the doctor claims is possessed by an evil spirit. The initial tension lies around vague whispers of what exactly Jack has planned for the segment with Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), the possessed. Concerns are raised on all sides, especially by Dr. Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), but clearly only one thing matters to Jack: beating Carson and securing his position as the top of late night.
To reveal much more of the plot would radically undercut the joy of Late Night, which lies in the slow reveals that start to unravel about halfway through the film. The brilliance of the film is in that slow decaying.
The film opens with a fairly standard talk show opening monologue, complete with period appropriate topical humor and a set design that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s watched clips of Dick Cavett. By capturing that aesthetic perfectly, the film really sings, starting with the frothiness of these leisurely chat shows. It has touchstones that viewers will immediately be able to identify and hook into reality. The eye to details that directors Cameron and Colin Carines put into the production design, and nailing the exact right tone, allows them the freedom to then push against those expectations.
The film hinges on Dastmalchian’s performance as Delroy, conveying someone who is grasping at what he perceives as his last chance but also outwardly communicating as calm and in control of the circus. Dastmalchian, who has been outspoken about his own struggles with mental health and anxiety, channels an energy that communicates that bridge brilliantly, walking a tightrope of mania while also being the eye of the storm, calm and collected on camera, and jittering just off screen.
Ultimately, Late Night With the Devil centers less on the supernatural and more on the achingly human. At one point in the interview, Lilly says that Dr. Ross-Mitchell believes we all have demons inside of us. Seeing the ways that the different player’s demons bounce off against each other, colliding to explosive effect as the film scrambles towards its manic ending, makes Late Night a powerful film that rises above what could be perceived as gimmick and lingers on a foreboding conclusion: We all have our demons. And sometimes, they get the better of us.