Late Night with the Devil Asks: Is There Anything Scarier Than a Desperate TV Star?


Of all the movies this year, Late Night with the Devil, written and directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, might be my #1 Most Anticipated of 2024. It has everything I love: body horror, period-accurate horror, meta commentary on my favorite genre, David Dastmalchian, The Devil. And the movie lived up to a lot of my hopes! I’ll talk about how it worked and how it fell short in non-spoiler and spoiler sections below. But first, unfortunately: a note on its use of AI.

I had already bought tickets and planned my review when I heard about the use of AI. Part of me wants to draw a deep line in the sand and refuse to discuss any creative work that uses that shit even slightly. Part of me doesn’t want to dismiss or ignore a movie that a lot of people worked on because of one poor decision that a lot of them had nothing to do with. If my info is up-to-date, it seems like AI art was used in a few interstitial shots, and that when the movies was made two years ago, they were exploring it as an interesting new tool, which, well, I would argue against that. In fact, while I’ve come down on the side for reviewing the film, let me be clear. With the caveat that AI—or the thing people call “AI”, it’s not, it’s not intelligent, it does not have consciousness, ffs, get a grip—is EVIL. Genuinely evil, not just horror-movie-evil. Potential-to-destroy-art-and-society EVIL. We have to reject it, as a species, because a certain type of person is going to keep trying this shit, just like they tried to get us all to say “content” instead of writing, film, painting, thinking, etc. We can’t let it slide.

AI cannot make art.

Art isn’t content—it’s how humanity knows itself.

You, person reading this, are neither a consumer of content, nor a collection of content. Don’t make me play David Bowie’s Top of Pops “Starman” performance at you, cause I’ll fucking do it.

OK now that all of that’s out of the way: Late Night with the Devil!

It’s an inventive retro horror movie that didn’t completely land for me, despite a lot of great moments, but that I’m excited to watch again. The 1970s atmosphere is just about pitch perfect—I think they could have made the stock a little grainier but still, if you’re one of those families that puts Christmas decorations up immediately after Halloween, put this sucker on a double bill with The Holdovers.

The movie opens with a brief documentary-style introduction telling us that Jack Delroy (my beloved David Dastmalchian) is the host of a late-night show called Night Owls who desperately wants to beat Johnny Carson in the ratings. There are hints that he’s maybe gone a little too far to achieve this. Then, on Halloween Night 1977, he invites four special guests onto his show: Christou, a psychic, Carmichael the Conjurer, a former magician now styling himself as a professional skeptic/debunker of supernatural phenomena, Dr. June Ross-Mitchell, parapsychologist, and her charge, Lilly, the only surviving member of a Satanic cult. The movie unspools in real time as the footage from the episode, in glorious grainy 1970s color, with the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens during the commercial breaks shot in black-and-white.

LNWTD Gus 2
Image: IFC Films/Shudder

The four guests interact with each other, Jack argues with his producer, his sidekick Gus trots around asking if there have been script changes, and everyone gets increasingly frantic as Jack eggs them on, hoping to get a 40 share in the ratings. Obviously, he gets considerably more than that, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

David Dastmalchian takes this star turn and runs with it. He’s absolutely perfect and present, and makes Jack come alive in every smirk at the camera, every moment when you can’t tell if he’s really feeling a human emotion, or playing to his audiences’ sympathies for ratings. Rhys Auteri plays sidekick Gus, who is, like most non-Andy-Richter sidekicks, the butt of Jack’s jokes. He also attempts to act as Jack’s conscience as the host’s desire for ratings careens out of control. The guests are also note perfect. Fayssal Bazzi plays Christou as so committed to the bit that he might actually believe he’s psychic. Ian Bliss plays Carmichael the Conjurer as a sleazy blowhard who might actually be driven by a sincere desire to keep people from being swindled, but might also just love stirring shit. And Laura Gordon as Dr. June Ross-Mitchell is a perfect nod to Exorcist II’s Dr. Gene Tuskin. Does she care about Lilly? I think so, but she does have books to sell, and she somehow keeps caving when people want her to do on-air spirit conversations despite all the ethical reservations she claims to have. Ingrid Torelli captures Lilly’s creepiness: Is she the socially awkward and disturbed former cult member? Is she actually possessed by a demonic entity she calls “Mr. Wriggles”, or does she simply think she’s possessed? I think the best aspect of this, though, is how guileless she seems—this is a 1970s child, who only has access to like four TV channels and a rotary phone, who can’t imagine an internet. She’s never taken a selfie. She’s dazzled by the cameras, and keeps staring into them and smiling because she’s grown up in a foreign land where people aren’t constantly recording themselves. It’s a great touch.

Laura Gordon as parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell and Ingrid Torelli as Lilly in Late Night with the Devil
Image: IFC Films/Shudder

Where this movie really shines like the light reflecting off a disco ball is in the attention to the 1970s. The cheesy theme music, the color palette of the set, the clothes in various shades of brown and burgundy—if you plunked Dick Cavett into one of the Night Owls chairs, he’d feel right at home. The Cairnes brothers keep a fine balance between slightly nudging us about how absurd and antiquated it all looks, and being absolutely sincere about Jack as a real human person who has suffered tragedy, but who’s also a slightly sleazy talk show host desperate for fame. A few minutes into the found footage, the movie has completely bought into itself. The only time it winks at the audience is much later—and that’s a very pointed wink, with a purpose.

This is why part of me wonders if seeing it on television might make it even better. I saw it in the theater, in a surprisingly crowded theater for a late afternoon showing, and the audience was really engaged; I heard gasps and laughs throughout. I love watching horror in a dark room full of people—but I find myself wondering how much more effective it would be if I stumbled across this on TV, with little idea of what I was going into. If you want to recreate that, I’d advise you to duck out now before I start spoiling things, and watch Late Night with the Devil in the dark, at somewhere around 2am, when it plays on Shudder. It won’t be quite as good as coming across it by accident, but I’m planning to see how it changes the experience.

The studio audience watches Night Owls with Jack Delroy in Late Night with the Devil.
Image: IFC Films/Shudder

But now let me get into the full-spoiler discussion. I’ve been thinking about this idea of “found media” anyway, with people on the internet lamenting the fact that you can’t just accidentally trip over some interesting older film on cable or in a mom-and-pop video store like you used to. Last week I saw people arguing about whether The Matrix is still relevant to The Youths (so what if it isn’t? The Youths can always watch Speed Racer or, perhaps even better, V for Vendetta) whether Kids These Days watch anything from even five years ago, let alone 30. This stuck in my head a bit as this original horror film opens against yet another Ghostbusters legacy sequel with a dozen huge ideas stuffed into a creaking, leaking vessel that barely qualifies as a movie. (And before you get weird, I’ll have you know that Child Leah based a disturbing amount of their personality on Dr. Peter Venkman—but I still have no need or desire for these rehashes.) Late Night with the Devil is an interesting way to engage with the past. If Kids These Days watch it, they’ll get a pretty accurate sense of ‘70s horror and ‘70s talk shows, but more than that, they’ll get a fun, knotty horror movie that spends most of its time on slow burn suspense. A movie that respects their intelligence and rewards it.

Everything in the film is obviously leading to the encounter with “the devil” and then to the moment when Dr. Ross-Mitchell loses control of Lilly and the devil attacks everyone. Anything else is a letdown—and in some ways Late Night with the Devil more than fulfills its promise, but in others it falls short. Where I thought it was brilliant was that in the initial conversation between the doctor and Lilly, everything that happens can actually be explained away by Carmichael. If you know anything about psychic powers and the debunking thereof, you can pick it apart as you’re watching it.

Ian Bliss as Carmichael the Conjurer and Rhys Auteri as Gus McConnell in Late Night with the Devil.
Image: IFC Films/Shudder

When Carmichael then asks permission to hypnotize Gus, to prove how malleable the human mind is, the debunking becomes the text of the film. Carmichael hypnotizes Gus into thinking he’s full of worms, but he also hypnotizes the other guests, the studio audience, and the viewers at home. Where the movie takes a really fun step is that the hypnosis plays out as though all of us watching the movie have been hypnotized as well, and it does it pretty seamlessly. There’s a moment when Carmichael winks directly into the camera where I realized, “Oh, OK, I am also under hypnosis now” and was waiting for the reveal, but it still worked. Knowing I was being tricked didn’t undercut the gross fun of the worms. (If the shrieks of the audience are anything to go by, everyone in my theater bought into it, too.)

(Also, how weird is it that two movies, made in 2022, heavily featuring worms, are now getting a Spring 2024 release?)

This whole section of the film was note perfect. The problem comes after this, in the ending. Jack demands that they play the tape of the conversation with Mr. Wriggles, to verify that there was no hypnosis, no studio trickery. And it’s authentic, Carmichael starts getting freaked out, and then, of course, Mr. Wriggles actually comes bursting through Lilly and killing people. That’s the only way this movie could end. The problem for me at least, was that this giant over-the-top killing spree felt less visceral than Carmichael’s hypnosis. Having the demon shoot Palpatine-ish lightning bolts at everyone just wasn’t as horrifying as watching worms burst out of Gus’ stomach, or watching Jack realize that the demon was speaking to him, directly, and seemed to know him. Jack’s own freefall through hallucinations was good, but I don’t think it quite paid off the hints that he’d made a deal with dark forces—and also if he knew he made that deal, why invite them onto the show? Wouldn’t you be dancing as fast as you could to avoid the Devil? (I haven’t made any deals yet—I don’t think—so I don’t know how it works.) And finally, while on the one hand I like the idea that the found footage simply stops, and that’s the end of the movie, it opened with the premise that there was a documentary about Jack’s last show—where was the end of the documentary? I’ve been thinking about Asteroid City roughly once every 7 minutes since I watched it last May, and it used the similar promise of a wraparound documentary about a live broadcast. It, also, dealt with its ending by delivering the audience into raw emotion, rather than wrapping things up in a neat documentary bow, so I’m OK with that, but I think I just wanted it to be even scarier.

If you promise me the Devil, I want the Devil. Late Night with the Devil is set in October 1977, four years after The Exorcist shattered box office records and redefined what “blockbuster” meant. You can watch documentaries about the cultural impact—it was huge. Talk shows really did bring psychologists and parapsychologists and exorcists on to talk about the phenomenon. It could be that I missed some stuff, but I only caught one real full reference to the film (even though we’re in a universe that includes Johnny Carson), and this might be me overthinking things, as I have a tendency to do, but I kind of wanted Late Night with the Devil to acknowledge the pop culture that everyone on the Night Owls set, and in the studio audience, would presumably share when they walk into a live broadcast of a conversation with the Devil.

But still, I think there are a lot of great ideas here, so I don’t want to dwell too much on where it fell short.

LNWTD Jack 2

[END OF SPOILERS KLAXON]

Late Night with the Devil is a flawed film, but it’s reaching for something really interesting, it commits to the bit, and the cast is absolutely stellar. It’s worth a trip to the theater, but if it isn’t playing near you I’d recommend setting an alarm for 2am once it hits Shudder on April 19th. icon-paragraph-end



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