If you’re looking for your next indie midnight movie watch, look no further than Colin and Cameron Cairnes’ Late Night with the Devil, a horror period piece that’s just as eerie as it is fun. Imagine something like BBC’s controversial Halloween special Ghostwatch except it’s set in 1970s New York and isn’t a hoax.
The first eight minutes of Late Night with the Devil are like a documentary beginning with a montage of chaotic 1970s news footage. A gruff narrator tells us about Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of the late-night talk show Night Owls. We learn that he was successful for a time but was always second-best to Johnny Carson.
After the tragic death of his wife Madeleine (Georgina Haig), ratings went down. A year later on October 31, 1977, Jack sets out to boost ratings with one helluva Halloween special, unaware that “Late Night with the Devil” would be the last episode ever filmed. The recording of that fateful night went unseen for an undisclosed amount of time. Now that it’s been discovered, we get to witness the on-air devil conjuring that, as one might expect, doesn’t end well.
Jack’s eclectic guests for the night include medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), magician/skeptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss), parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), and her young demon-infested subject Lilly (Ingrid Torelli). Seeing them all interact, along with Jack’s sidekick Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri) and the show’s chainsmoking producer Leo Fiske (Josh Quong Tart), is one of the most entertaining parts of the film. It’s an interesting group of characters brought to life by some talented actors who all give authentic performances.
Dastmalchian, known for his incredible work in both the MCU and DCEU (as well as Gotham, The Dark Knight, and Dune), gives Jack the swagger of a ’70s talk show host who seems genuinely nice but is filled with grief and desperation. He gets so hyper-focused on his own interests that he doesn’t question whether or not he’s exploiting the girl’s condition for ratings. At times the character comes off a bit callous, but Dastmalchian lets Jack’s underlying insecurities seep through his exterior. We can’t help but feel for the guy and the immense pressure he’s under.
A bustling television studio might not sound like a particularly scary setting for a horror movie especially when it’s filled with crew members and a live audience. The space isn’t even claustrophobic and there’s almost too much going on to have time to be scared. But the chaotic environment is the perfect place to catch someone off-guard. Their eyes and ears are overwhelmed with bright lights and constant chattering, so when a guest seemingly has some kind of paranormal-induced breakdown, it shocks them into the present.
There’s a good amount of suspense and uneasiness because we’re not sure just how supernatural things will get, or what will be considered real versus a parlor trick. I wouldn’t call it a slow burn but there’s a satisfying build to a third act that truly goes off the rails in the best way.
The Cairnes described late-night talk shows as “a window into some strange adult world.” TV definitely gets weird after 10:00 PM, and this film gives off a similar vibe. With iconic films like The Exorcist and Suspiria coming out in the 1970s, the decade was a time when society’s obsession with the occult was at an all-time high (just before the “satanic panic” of the 1980s).
Like The Wicker Man, Late Night with the Devil isn’t soaked in blood, but since it isn’t an all-out gorefest, the few grotesque moments are even more effective. Russell Sharp’s (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) prosthetics and Clint Dodd’s (The Babadook) practical effects are reminiscent of not the limitations but the simplicity of the time.
As Spooky Pictures producer Roy Lee (It, Barbarian) told Bloody Disgusting last summer, when the show goes to commercial and takes us behind the scenes, the film goes from warm colors to black and white. Director of Photography Matthew Temple (My Life Is Murder) uses that recognizable ’70s horror cinematography — graininess, slow zooms, dreamlike lighting, and a sequence featuring perfectly disorientating Dutch angles like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Late Night With the Devil centers on a man plagued by grief, anxiety, and the stress of his talk show getting the axe at any moment. Colin and Cameron Cairnes expertly infused the inherent surreality of talk shows with occultism, resulting in a uniquely chilling story. The film has an intriguing blend of Ed Wood, Channel Zero: Candle Cove, House of the Devil, Documentary Now!, and The Twilight Zone. It’s destined to become a Halloween classic, though I recommend watching it year-round. I know I will.
Late Night with the Devil premiered March 10 at the 2023 South by Southwest Film Festival.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.