Variety Is the Slice of Life

Written and directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, Late Night with the Devil boasts a terrifically clever premise. The film frames itself as a documentary dealing with a notorious episode of the late night variety show Night Owls with Jack Delroy. It offers up “the recently discovered master tape of what went to air that night, as well as previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage.” “That night” was October 31st, 1977, a sweeps-week special episode not just content to “celebrate all the fiendish fun of Halloween.” The episode represents Delroy’s desperate attempt to resuscitate his show and boost his career–his last-ditch effort to unseat Johnny Carson as the ratings king of late night television.

The Cairnes brothers bask in the retro, perfectly capturing the1970’s America mise-en-scène. Late Night‘s look–the clothes, the hairstyles, the set design (suffused with brown and orange hues), the video graphics–is spot on. Timely references to figures such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Reggie Jackson, President Jimmy Carter, and Burt Reynolds are made. Fictional characters in the film are recognizably based on real-world models: the medium/spiritualist Christou recalls both Criswell and the Amazing Kreskin; reformed magician and current debunker of the occult Carmichael Haig forms an obvious James Randi stand-in; the satanic leader of the First Church of Abraxas, Szandor D’Abo, echoes Anton Szandor LaVey. The result of all this commitment to verisimilitude is the easy suspension of disbelief as the viewer imagines that an actual television show is playing before the eye.

Indeed, the sustained intimacy of the film’s tv-studio setting reels the audience in; brush with the uncanny/occult feels like it is occurring live and in lurid color. Suspense builds steadily, especially after the first guest Christou, an apparent fraud, experiences genuine distress (physical as well as psychic) and must be rushed to the hospital. Strong narrative tension is maintained, as the characters debate whether something truly supernatural is transpiring, or whether the sinister twists are the product of slyly calculated stagecraft. The apex of anxiousness is reached when the main guests are brought out: parapsychologist/author June Ross-Mitchell and her ward Lilly, the sole survivor of the Abraxas cult’s mass suicide and now the alleged earthly vessel of an infernal spirit. The Night Owls ratings ploy of attempting to summon up the demon dubbed Mr. Wiggles is nerve-wrackingly tense. This extended scene makes for one of the best evocations of the demoniac in modern horror.

Perhaps not shockingly given its talk show setting, Late Night displays a wicked sense of wit. Even the diabolical must capitulate to capitalism, as a deadpan Delroy tells his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned for a live-television first, as we attempt to commune with the Devil. But not before a word from our sponsors.” Wonderfully arch use is also made of the old-style “Experiencing Technical Difficulties” cutaway. All told, the film presents a barbed satire of the entertainment industry, as well as a cautionary tale about the awful price of ambition.

This is the kind of cinematic vehicle that can steer one of two ways: with its ambiguity (natural vs. supernatural explanation) left unresolved, or with all hell indisputably breaking loose at film’s end. I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that the latter direction is chosen here (considering that the documentary intro touts “the late night event that shocked a nation”). Yes, one can anticipate where matters are leading, but the fun resides in getting to that point, and then witnessing what happens once the excrement hits the proverbial fan. Horror lovers are certain to find all the climactic havoc savagely satisfying. Let me whet the appetite by stating: imagine if Regan MacNeil replaced Carrie White as bloody-minded prom queen.

Late Night is not a perfect effort. Its opening montage (for which Michael Ironside provides the voiceover) arguably supplies excess exposition, giving too much information away about Delroy’s dealings. The surrealism of the conclusion also denatures the found-footage trappings, as it seemingly shifts from documented tape evidence to Delroy’s subjective experience of a Faustian nightmare. Still, the film is wildly entertaining and features incredible performances: David Dastmalchian utterly captivates as host Jack Delroy, Ian Bliss is a joy to behold as the curmdugeonly Carmichael, and Ingrid Torelli nearly steals the whole damned show as the perky but mercurial Lilly. It’s also a film that rewards repeated viewing, as subtle glances and suggestive bits of dialogue grow more clearly meaningful the second time through. Stuffed with visual, verbal, and thematic echoes of classic horror fare such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s BabyLate Night with the Devil serves up a tasty snack that can be relished here tonight at the halfway-mark to Halloween or once again at the approach of the midnight hour at October’s end.

Late Night With the Devil is now playing in theaters, and also streaming on Shudder.

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