LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL: Real-Time, Really Funny, and Truly Terrifying

An unforgettable performance by David Dastmalchian anchors a scary, suspenseful skewering of 70s Satanic Panic

Stills courtesy of IFC Films.

There’s an irresistible pull across all cinematic cultures to blend horror and reality. While there’s a continuing glut of found footage horror in the wake of The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust, few, truly special films dare to encourage our suspension of disbelief by presenting themselves as something completed (Noroi: the Curse) or, even more daring, to involve live audiences in this horrific sleight of hand like Halloween 1992’s Ghostwatch. Lesley Manning and Steven Volk’s “live” experiment in horror filmmaking found justified comparisons to Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast War of the Worlds, gripping a country in unified fright on the year’s spookiest night.

While not airing on live TV and choosing to debut in the height of Spring rather than wait until Samhain, Cameron and Colin Cairnes’ Late Night with the Devil no less manages to break out as a wholly captivating and chilling successor to these films. A wholly committed and talented cast and crew fire on all cylinders to bring the 70’s late-night aesthetic of the film to life. At the same time, this reverent realism masks an equally deliberate pacing that places the audience in an incrementally unendurable pressure cooker of suspense. Over a tight ninety minutes, the Cairnes slowly earns the audiences’ screams as much as their laughs–while David Dastmalchian’s winning performance as consummate showman Jack Delroy reveals the achingly human dimensions behind a late-night host’s corrupting hunger for stardom.

On Halloween Night 1977, Night Owls host Jack Delroy (Dastmalchian) is at a desperate career crossroads. His late-night return a year after the death of his wife (Georgina Haig) still places him as a bridesmaid to Johnny Carson in the ratings, despite his controversial guests and mysterious connections to the high-profile, mysterious Grove. In a last-ditch effort to capture the top spot, Jack assembles a thrilling roster of guests for sweeps week–psychic Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), renowned skeptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss), paranormal researcher Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), and her young charge Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a young cult survivor who can summon the demon possessing her with June’s guidance. As the night unfolds, Jack’s quest for the number-one rating turns harrowing–and Jack’s glitzy ambition threatens to unleash hell upon audiences across America.

First and foremost, the immersion into the world of Late Night with the Devil is quite phenomenal. Bolstered by a wealth of archival footage and never leaving its studio location, Late Night throws every dollar of its budget into making Night Owls look like the ultimate forgotten 70s talk show. Production designer Otello Stolfo’s look is defined by clashing colors, tubular swirls, and ever-present glaring lights–despite being set in the 1970s, Night Owls manages to feel thrift-store-retro even in its own period, and consequently as stale and dated as Jack fears the show has become. The Cairnes’ own admitted passions for this era of pop culture also reflect organically on the characters’ traits and the content they produce–using a grab bag of cultural touchstones including Bohemian Grove conspiracy theories, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, and such films as Network and The King of Comedy to weave an effective evocation of the “Satanic Panic” era that’s an equal source of biting satire and visceral terror. 

The bottled setting of Jack’s program is also, like Ghostwatch before it, a wickedly clever way of seamlessly shifting Late Night’s tone from hilarious to hair-raising in real time. The scares of Late Night build in moderation, uncomfortably played for laughs by Jack and his co-host Gus (Rhys Auteri) to maintain control of their program. However, the more Jack realizes how he can seize on the opportunities provided by an on-air demonic possession, the more the frights can take center stage to catastrophic results. During this skillful shift, the Cairnes subvert the trappings of faux-doc horror with fiendish glee–with a particularly masterful sequence involving hypnotism that has audiences both fictional and not questioning their reality. A judicious balance of editing, CGI, and practical effects further augments this horrific bridge between truth and fiction.

It’s David Dastmalchian’s lead performance, however, that solidifies Late Night with the Devil’s emerging status as a new classic horror film. Dastmalchian brings to Late Night an already-impressive career as a coveted character actor, having established himself as a go-to casting coup for directors like Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, and James Gunn. Having proven just how much of an impact he can make with a handful of scenes, Dastmalchian’s long-overdue first lead performance reveals a deft control of characterization across Late Night’s equally efficient runtime. An opening act in the vein of a Netflix true-crime special fills in the tragedy behind Jack Delroy’s near-unflappable charm, but it’s how Dastmachian weaponizes that information in the beats between the one-liners that makes Delroy such a memorable character. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool showman, orchestrating his audience’s reactions to comedic skits and shocking tell-alls with ease. Yet, as Lilly’s possession reveals a possible opportunity to reconnect with his deceased wife, Jack–like his audience–can’t help but entertain the possibility that this may be more than just another late-night act. Jack’s ambitions to reach the late-night spot are all too human, as dire as they are inspiring; Dastmalchian uses this to tease out the darker, still unknown aspects of Jack’s true nature. What was he capable of hanging out with the rich and powerful in the mysterious Grove…and what does that mean about what Jack’s capable of on live TV? The Cairnes wisely never quite show their hand in this regard, yet Dastmalchian’s increasingly insidious charisma keeps us anticipating further revelations.

Each of these impressively realized elements would alone be winning aspects of an indie horror film–yet combined they truly elevate Late Night with the Devil to become more than the sum of its parts or inspirations. It’s a film that evolves the legacy of the horror classics before it, pushing the genre to exciting new heights–as well as elevating David Dastmalchian to the leading man status he more than deserves. 

Late Night with the Devil hits theaters courtesy of IFC Films on March 22nd, followed by a streaming debut on Shudder on April 12th. 

Previous post GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE – The Powers are Still Standing
Next post LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL is a Refreshingly Intriguing Spin on Found Footage