The Austin Chronicle

David Dastmalchian Welcomes Satan to the Set of Late Night With the Devil

By Richard Whittaker, April 26, 2024, 8:00am, Picture in Picture

Horror nerd alert! Early in Late Night With the Devil, there's a reference to Berwin, Illinois, a city best known as the butt of jokes by horror movie host Svengoolie. So how did it end up in an Australian indie flick?

There's glee in David Dastmalchian's voice as he proudly announces, “That was me!”

The star of the South by Southwest 2023 Midnighter (still in Austin cinemas and streaming on Shudder now) plays Jack Delroy, the host of '70s talk show Night Owls, whose Halloween episode plunges into supernatural darkness after he makes the spooky season too real. Dastmalchian recalled, “We were starting production, and [writer/directors Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes] said, ‘Any time you feel like inserting something or improvising something, please, please go ahead.’”

The filmmaking duo knew they were dealing with a real horror fan. Dastmalchian may have become a familiar face in superhero films, as Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad, mournful Kurt in Ant-Man, and his breakout role as Joker's creepiest thug in The Dark Knight. He's not just a face in comic adaptations, having voiced heroes and villains in multiple animated features including the DC/Rooster Teeth mashup Justice League x RWBY: Super Heroes and Huntsmen).

However, films like The Boogeyman, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, and now Late Night With the Devil prove his adoration of spooky cinema.

But it wasn't his filmography that attracted the Australian filmmakers. Instead, it was a 2020 article that he wrote for Fangoria about regional horror hosts, the local celebrities that would fill schedules in the witching hour with classic flicks and comedy skits. “Colin and Cameron read that article and that's what sparked their interest in casting me as Jack.”

At the same time, Dastmalchian was confident that two Australian filmmakers would know exactly what the golden era of American late-night TV was like because they were so influenced by American pop culture. “They were the guys reading Fangoria, watching all the John Carpenter movies, obsessed with the same things I was.” As a result, he added, “There wasn’t a ton of me having to course-correct anything that felt off, because Colin and Cameron were such huge fans and students of American television and film that it felt like they grew up watching the same things that I did.”

That cultural fluency was vital because the film recreates a particular moment in time: October 31, 1977. But it’s not just a date, but a time capsule of an era. The idea, Dastmalchian said, was for people watching the movie “to feel like they’re back in their parents’ basement, sitting in front of a TV tray, getting ready to eat a microwave dinner, watching on a big tube television.”

That's why he was eager to slip in that little nod to Svengoolie, arguably the greatest of the old school hosts still working today. “I knew all my Svenheads out there would get it,” he chirped, and, of course, he's eager for Svengoolie himself to see this little thank you. “If he hasn't, I can't wait 'til somebody tells him.”

[inset-1-right]The late night horror host and the late night chat show host shared time slots and cult status, and Dastmalchian adores both. This week he even launched his own horror-themed talk show now, Grave Conversations, in which he interviews horror filmmakers like Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) in a coffin.

While he admits that the horror hosts would always have his bloody heart, “I definitely grew up on and fascinated by late night talk show host culture, because I think that so many weird, wonderful moments in television history happened in those unscripted, bizarre, funny, hilarious bits. Like watching the Carson show and all the crazy antics they would get up to with classic stars of cinema and musicians. Thinking about all the people that Dick Cavett had when he would interview so many incredible people. I remember Letterman, and I used to love things like Stupid Human Tricks and the Top 10 lists, and his infamous interview with Crispin Glover. That was always one of my favorites to rewatch on YouTube.”

However, there was one particular late night talk show host who influenced the film: Don Lane, the American-born standup, singer, and sportscaster who found greatest success behind the desk on two shows in Australia, Tonight With Don Lane and The Don Lane Show. The Cairnes grew up watching him, and Dastmalchian studied his cadence and delivery to inform Jack’s voice. Moreover, Lane's was the kind of show that would book psychics and spiritualists like Uri Geller and Doris Stokes, then bring in famed skeptic and debunker James Randi to add fuel to the fire. Dastmalchian said, “I think he, very much like Jack Delroy, wanted to believe. He was hoping that something would happen on his show. 90% of that hope was inspired by the desire to blow ratings through the roof, but I still think 10% of that hope was because he believed there was something outside of our understanding.”

And there’s one more classic talk show host in Jack’s lineage: Larry Sanders, the host of The Larry Sanders Show as played by Gary Shandling in the sitcom of the same name. It focused on a late-night talk show that concentrated on the behind-the-scenes dramas in the same way that Late Night With the Devil does. Dastmalchian said, “It was something that Colin and Cameron were very consciously going for, and I was very grateful for, that we could play out that drama, that tension, that very staccato, high-paced send of ‘Oh my god, we’ve only got 30 seconds to do so much and say so much before we’re back from the next live commercial break.’ Live television sounds to me like such a stomachache.”

That dichotomy – between the fake chaos that goes out live and the real chaos of throwing together a one-hour TV show every night – allowed Dastmalchian to find what he saw as Jack’s Jekyll and Hyde nature. He described the Jack that the Night Owl audience saw as “affable and quick-witted and charming and funny, but then the Mister Hyde, if you will, is the private Jack who is downing as much alcohol as he can to calm his nerves over that fact that his entire life’s work is hanging on the precipice of a ratings game, and his deceased wife’s memory is hanging so fresh in his mind but he doesn’t have the capacity to process that trauma.”

After all, it was that character study that had really appealed to Dastmalchian about the script. “It’s not a premise that hinged on supernatural possibilities but it hinged upon, and the dramatic pathos erupts from, the fact that Jack Delroy is a man literally on the edge – on the edge of failure, on the edge of sanity, on the edge of deep and unaddressed grief. So all the stuff that goes sideways on his show is just enough to push him into the mouth of madness.”

Late Night With the Devil is in theatres and streaming on Shudder now. Read our review here.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.