SXSW Film Review: Late Night With the Devil

Supernatural satire shows the hellish price of success

Late Night With the Devil is not a movie. At least, that’s not what it presents itself as.

Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s film starts with a narrated profile of fictional 1970s late night talk show host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian in a role where he’s able to perfectly filter entertainment-business cynicism through a veil of audience-facing charm) and his variety program Night Owls” that acts as an alternative to the likes of Johnny Carson. Despite enjoying modest success, Jack lives in the ceaseless shadow of his contemporaries, a fact exacerbated by his despair when his wife succumbs to lung cancer.

As ratings continue to dip, Jack, looking for anything to stir up conversation, plots a special Halloween broadcast in which he’s going to invite on supposedly possessed young girl Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), her haunting borne out of a satanic cult written about in a book by clairvoyant June (Laura Gordon) who also appears on the show.

Ostensibly, this film is actually a special program titled Late Night with the Devil that reveals the unearthed, cursed reality of this particular taping of Delroy’s show which also includes exclusive behind the scenes footage captured from the fateful night. Thus, the film plays out as an actual taping of a 70s late-night talk show: events are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio and with the slight fuzzy glow reminiscent of a VHS tape playing on a CRT television. Jack is played in and out by his live band, and in between we watch him fill the time between commercial breaks.

That’s when the aesthetic shifts, and the style turns into a black-and-white vérité sense of behind-the-scenes commotion as the crew readies for the return from break—and wonders whether or not a real haunting is going on.

It’s totally gimmicky, but the sincere commitment to the conceit is what really makes this work. Don’t come to this looking for too many outright scares, as this thrives off gallows humor and the gradual escalation of the familiar trappings of the late night show slowly spiraling out of control and giving way to ever-so-spooky malevolent forces. It maintains a consistent and fantastic vibe if, like me, you enjoy the Halloween-store aesthetic of seasonal October television programming.

The tongue-in-cheek tone that it lands on helps with the fact that it feels indebted to horror progenitors; the initial qualities of Lilly’s possession just scream The Exorcist. This is more of a fun exercise with indulging in horror linchpins by working them into this specific concept than something meant to be taken gravely serious.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the conclusion doesn’t quite land. The limits of the premise begin to get stretched past their breaking point, and it relies on a certain amount of emotional investment with Jack that’s hard to connect with when his trauma is so contained to what we learn over the course of a single episode taping, despite Dastmalchian’s excellent performance. Even still, Late Night With the Devil is able to mine plenty of effective and fun ideas out of its premise, and it works as a potent examination of the price of success.

Late Night With the Devil

Midnighters, World Premiere

Wed 15, 6:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
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