Written and directed by Australian siblings Cameron and Colin Cairnes, Late Night with the Devil is a delight. Filmed like an actual late night talk show, with additional behind the scenes footage (in black and white) from the commercial breaks, the 70s-set period film is both outstanding entertainment and a fantastic showcase for lead actor David Dastmalchian.
The film opens with context-setting pre-amble sequence that chronicles Jack Delroy (Dastmalchian)’s efforts to compete with Carson as the king of the late night talk show circa the mid-70s. As we see in both the canned bits and his interviews, Jack is a likeable, funny, and charismatic host and he shares good chemistry with his emcee Gus (Rhys Auteri).
Alas Jack’s affable charm is challenged when his wife Madeline (Georgina Haig) suddenly dies of cancer. With his show in trouble, a grieving Jack plots an ambitious Halloween episode on the eve of the 1977 television sweeps in a desperate bid to convince the network to renew his contract. The movie chronicles the night that he made history.
As a premise, the Cairnes brothers have struck gold. The movie automatically has a rock solid narrative structure, and the goals and motivations of Jack, Gus and cutthroat producer Leo (Josh Quong Tart) are immediately clear. Even when mysterious and/or unusual events begin to occur, such as when Jack’s first guest Christou the psychic (Fayssal Bazzi) has a visceral reaction live on-air, everyone is happy for the show to proceed because notoriety is good for the ratings
The narrative takes a turn, however, when parapsychologist and author Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) is introduced, along with demon-possessed Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), who is both June’s charge and the subject of her new book.
By this time Christou has suffered a medical emergency and been carted off, and former magician turned skeptic Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss) is waiting in the wings to undermine everything. So although June confides to Jack that they should not proceed with a demonstration of Lilly’s Satanic powers, the talk show host can’t afford not to.
What makes Late Night with the Devil so enjoyable is that the Cairnes brothers use the confines of the (mostly) single studio setting to their advantage. Instead of treating it as a limitation, by keeping the action fixed and the ticking clock of a late night show, there’s an urgency and an inevitability to the proceedings. By adopting the visual techniques and dialogue of the period, the Cairnes brothers are playing in a very specific sandbox, which they then exploit to make their film.
This includes the opening sequence that openly teases the film’s end (well…sort of). Unlike other texts that begin in media res and then jump back in time, or forecast the film’s end, the insinuation of this opening sequence is simply that something awful will happen. It is unclear exactly what, how, or even who will be affected, which works in the film’s favour by helping to build suspense and anticipation.
More than that, however, Late Night with the Devil does exceptional character work: each character, including Gus the loveable supernatural-averse emcee, is made up of clearly defined and easily understood traits. Each guest has a specific purpose, which is to escalate the supernatural stakes. We’re initially invited to laugh at Christou’s (poorly executed) parlour tricks, which invites Carmichael’s skepticism and hypnotism, which in turn anticipates the arrival of June and Lilly; the latter of whom is, of course, the real deal.*
*Shout-out to Torelli for stealing the show: Lilly’s ability to find and stare down the camera is equal parts creepy and hilarious. Torelli’s capacity to shift from innocent, star struck girl to threatening demonic entity and back again in a heartbeat is especially impressive.
Anchoring the whole film is Dastmalchian, who steps up to the plate in a big way when he’s finally given the opportunity to lead his own film. Jack is a quintessential late night talk show host, though the glimmer of desperation and fear that creeps into Dastmalchian’s performance as Jack becomes increasingly unsettled is a quiet marvel.
This all leads to the inevitable, epic finale. The opening teases a supernatural disaster and that’s exactly what the climax accomplishes, complete with bloody pyrotechnics and a great comedic stinger in the form of a “Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By” card and jaunty music.
It’s a pitch perfect combination of gore and laughs that works as the cherry on top of one of the best genre films of the year.