Film Review: Late Night With the Devil

  • Reviews

After generating a huge amount of buzz last year on the festival circuit, the Cairnes Brother’s found-footage / faux documentary hybrid horror hit Late Night With the Devil finally arrives in cinemas. A love letter to late-night 70’s talk-shows that skirts the line between reality and nightmare, the Cairnes have crafted a film that slowly builds an atmosphere of aching, creeping dread that threatens to explode as the crescendo slouches into view.

A man standing on stage facing the audience which are mostly in the dark. Still from Late Night With the Devil.

The scene for the film is set up nicely by a brief documentary portion (voiced by the iconic Michael Ironside) who explains all the players in our theatre of horror. We are told that what we are being presented with is the recently unearthed master copy of the final episode of a talk show hosted by former radio DJ Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian). The show, Night Owls, is an also-ran in the late-night talk show wars, forever trailing the cultural behemoth that is Jonny Carson’s The Tonight Show.

After the death of his glamourous movie star wife Madeline (Georgina Haig), Delroy finds his show plummeting down the weekly ratings, resulting in a desperate clutch of weird and controversial guests to try and reverse its fortunes. And on Halloween 1977, in the midst of the all-important Sweeps Week, Delroy plans to present a show so shocking and terrifying, that his name will never be forgotten…

Late Night With The Devil is everything I love about found-footage horror. Presented in a remarkable period-accurate fashion, the episode of Night Owls we are shown looks as convincingly seventies as it is possible to be. Garish fashions and flares aplenty, the presentation of the film is flawless and so well-executed that even the black and white ‘behind the scenes’ footage seems to fit in perfectly. In fact, the highest compliment I can pay to the directors’ eye for details is that before the horror kicks off, the film has the air of a seventies set episode of The Larry Sanders Show.

A man yells into the camera while an older woman is being comforted by a man behind him. Still from Late Night with the Devil.

While the film is very much its own beast, it is hard not to see the cinematic DNA of films such as The Exorcist, The King of Comedy, and perhaps closest of all, BBC’s exceptional and infamous faux-documentary Ghostwatch. But Late Night With the Devil has a confidence and swagger all of its own, and creates an experience that manages to feel new and unique while still riffing on what has come before.

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David Dastmalchian is an actor who is forever on the periphery of massive hits, and here it is wonderful to spend an hour and a half in his company. Charming, ruthless and haunted, Jack Delroy is a character wounded by loss and failure, grasping for greatness and sacrificing anything to get there. Much of the film’s success is built on the shoulders of Dastmalchian’s wonderfully nuanced work, and I will be surprised to find a more engaging and exciting performance in horror cinema this year.

In Night Owl’s final episode, the medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) communes with the dead in the opening segment, before being confronted by illusionist and sceptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) in the second. Haig reads like a seventies Derren Brown, unimpressed by what he sees as cheap parlour tricks to take advantage of the vulnerable. “We are both liars,” he tells Christou, “but at least I am honest about it.” Bliss is a lot of fun here, chewing the scenery along with his cigar as he pokes a disbelieving finger at the increasingly fantastical events unfolding.

A man dressed in a light brown suit rests his arm on a 1970s tv camera. Still from Late Night with the Devil.

And in his pocket, Carmichael carries a cheque for $100,000 that he will give willingly to anyone to can prove the existence of the supernatural.

By the end of the evening, Delroy is convinced that his final guests will be banking that fortune.

Doctor June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and her teenage patient Lilly D’Abo (Ingrid Torelli) are Jack’s final guests on his Halloween extravaganza. Lilly is the sole survivor of the mass suicide of a cult who worshipped the demon Abraxas, and Doctor June has taken her under her protection to try and help her deal with her ordeal.

Through blood sacrifice and murder, the cult claimed to be able to compel the demon to possess their members, with Lilly claiming to still be in touch with the entity she refers to as only “Mr Wriggles”. Ingrid Torelli is terrific as Lilly; unsettlingly confident from the moment she steps on stage, her eyes burning a hole through the camera lens as she watches the audience watching her.

Two men, a woman and a young girl sit on the stage of a television show. The young girl is looking directly at the camera. Still from Late Night with the Devil.

The themes of power and corruption and the ideas of secret cabals run through the veins of the film, with Delroy himself a member of the men-only (and highly cultish) cabal called The Grove; television executives and powerful men who meet in the Californian redwood forests, their own dark deeds hidden away from the cameras that Lilly so gleefully covets. “We’ve met before,” she tells Jack. “Among the tall trees…” The film is aware of the satanic panic of seventies America and leans into those threads to cement the film’s sinister, dangerous tone.

It is with the arrival of our final guests that Late Night With the Devil descends into pure horror territory. A genuinely unsettling possession scene kicks off a chain of events that lead the film into more supernatural and surprisingly gruesome areas than perhaps you would have expected going in. A slow, tension filled build suddenly explodes in a cacophony of chaos, blood and violence that succeeds in shocking the audience with its brutality.

I have always believed that found footage is at its best when it presents events as close to reality as possible, and Late Night With the Devil is incredibly skilled at blurring the lines between reality and artifice; and so, for my tastes, the CGI heavy finale undercuts some of the phenomenal work done by the film up until that point. While impressive and memorable, the loss of the creeping dread that the film had expertly cultivated is disappointing.

A man and woman kneel next to a young girl who is tied to a chair and has blood dripping from her nose. Still from Late Night With the Devil.

That being said, Dastmalchian’s wonderful performance managed to pull me back into the midst of the horror with a real emotional gut-punch, unveiling an unseen layer to the horror before ending on an arresting and haunting final shot.

Late Night With the Devil is a remarkable entry into the found-footage archives. A wonderfully complex central performance from David Datstmalchian anchors a well told tale of possession, ambition and destruction that reaches its hands out from the television set and into the audience of innocent souls watching on aghast.

Late Night With the Devil is coming to UK Cinemas from 22nd March.

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