Late Night With the Devil – movie review

Every year when I get my hands on the Melbourne International Film Festival program and start selecting my films, the first strand I pore through is Night Shift, which contains some bizarre horror and cinematic oddities. And the offbeat Late Night With the Devil (MIFF ’23) offers a fresh take on the tired found-footage genre. It purports to offer a rare glimpse of the hitherto unseen master tape of the final episode of a late-night talk show that went horribly wrong. The film also incorporates elements of occult horror, demonic possession and satire of late-night television talk shows. And it certainly fit into that part of the program that caters to the outlandish and the weird.

The premise is straightforward enough. In the 70s late night TV host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) hosted the Night Owls program, a cheesy talk show which always trailed Johnny Carson in the ratings. But during a broadcast on Halloween night in 1977 something went badly wrong when Delroy attempted to win the ratings and courted controversy by embracing the theme of the occult and the supernatural.

His special guests included Christou (Fayssal Bazzi, from the epic miniseries Shantaram), a spiritualist; Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss, from TV series Wentworth) a former conjurer turned debunker of fake psychics; and Lilly (Ingrid Torelli, from Bloom), a teenage girl who was rescued from a suicide cult. She was supposedly possessed by the spirit of a demon until she was deprogrammed by parapsychologist Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon, from TV series Winners & Losers). Mitchell wrote a best-selling book about the experience.

But when Delroy suggests that June try and contact the demon that has possessed Lilly, things go spectacularly wrong. There’s projectile vomiting, exploding heads, melting bodies, and some gory bits.

What we see on screen is supposed to be the recently discovered master tape of the show. It includes the show in its entirety complete with a lot of unseen footage and vision from behind the scenes during commercial breaks. The film is introduced with an eight-minute montage, a black and white documentary-like feature with narrator Michael Ironside giving us some background information on the 70s as a time of “unrest and mistrust”. This montage also provides some insight into the personality of Delroy and many of the rumours circulating about his links to a shady cult known as The Grove who conducted weird ceremonies in the foothills of LA.

This is the third feature film from Australian film making siblings Cameron and Colin Cairnes (2012’s 100 Bloody Acres), and it was filmed at Docklands Studios in Melbourne. The Cairnes brothers use analogue effects to capture that 70s vibe, and the sometimes shonky effects are more the result of restraints of the low budget. Cinematographer Matthew Temple (New Gold Mountain) gives the material an appropriately retro look and he uses a boxy ratio for those parts of the broadcast that were televised, giving it the look of watching a TV screen.

Late Night With the Devil serves up some uncomfortable laughs as it brilliantly recreates the look and feel of many of those late-night shows of the 70s and 80s, (for Australian audiences think The Don Lane Show). It comes complete with the distinctive visual style of the era: the colourful but cheap looking set designed by Otello Stolfo, the awkward announcer/comic sidekick, the breaks for commercials, the backing band and the appreciative live audience.

A perfectly cast Dastmalchian (Oppenheimer) brings an unctuous quality to his performance as the ingratiating, smarmy and smooth-talking host who grows more desperate as he loses control of his own show. In his feature film debut Rhys Auteri provides plenty of comic relief as Gus, the announcer who becomes increasingly nervous at the direction in which the show seems to be heading. Bliss is also perfect as the haughty and unpleasant Hunt.

Noted horror author Stephen King is apparently a huge fan of the film. It also grossed nearly $3 million in its opening weekend in the US.

Greg King

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