Late Night with the Devil: an underwhelming horror with an ingenious concept

A live broadcast of a 1970s late night talk show is derailed by a demonic force in this potentially brilliant horror set-up that is let down by a failure to follow the rules of its own gimmick.

25 March 2024

By Adam Nayman

David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy in Late Night with the Devil (2023)
Sight and Sound

The gap between concept and execution becomes a yawning chasm in Late Night with the Devil, an ingenious but frustratingly underwhelming horror movie set almost entirely during a ‘lost’ episode of a (fictional) 1970s late night talk show. In theory, it’s a brilliant idea to stage a story of (possible) demonic possession as an extended piece of three-camera, real-time verité, and there are moments when filmmakers Colin and Cameron Cairnes stake a persuasive claim to cult classic status. Unfortunately, though, the brothers ultimately fail to follow their own rules, quickly losing track of their own perspectival gimmick and transforming a potentially hilarious (and subversive) satire of lo-fi sensationalism and shock tactics into something disposable. 

A familiar – and compellingly elongated – face from any number of big-budget blockbusters, character actor David Dastmalchian deploys his long-standing ‘that guy’ status smartly to play a career B-lister on the verge of the big time. His Jack Delroy is an ambitious – and it’s implied, completely talented and resourceful – Johnny Carson manqué who, though not for lack of trying, simply can’t measure up to the master.  

In an exposition-dump – TV-news-style prologue that plays a bit too cutely with its many clues – we learn that after several years of nominal success, his show, Night Owls, is on the verge of cancellation, culminating a string of bad luck that includes the premature death of the host’s loving wife, Madeleine. To stave off obsolescence once and for all, Jack and his producer have planned a Halloween-night spectacular involving psychics, hypnotists, and a buttoned-down teenage girl whose claims that she’s inhabited by a figure named “Mr. Wriggles” promise to make for must-see-TV

The set-up is terrific, flush with a grim-but giggly sense of anticipation à la the British telefilm Ghostwatch (1992), an obvious influence for the Cairnes’ here. But what made Ghostwatch indelible was how doggedly it stuck to its formal conceit as a ‘live’ broadcast, even if it meant sacrificing potential scares along the way. About 20 minutes into Late Night with the Devil, after Jack throws to the first commercial break, we get shaky, hand-held, black-and-white footage of the cast and crew getting into position for the next segment – images whose textural authenticity betrays the fact that they’re totally unauthored within the world of the film.  

Of course, every genre movie requires suspension of disbelief, a theme that the film cleverly addresses through the character of a preening resident sceptic played by Ian Bliss. But these behind-the-scenes passages don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt specifically because they break the spell being cast by the rest of the material. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, the trajectory of the plot is satisfying, and the production design, lighting and editing betray traces of real smarts. But the movie is a broken contraption whose damage has been inflicted from within.  

  ► Late Night with the Devil is in UK cinemas now. 

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