Late Night with the Devil

(Cameron & Colin Cairnes, Australia/United Arab Emirates, 2023)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | March 22, 2024

Drawing inspiration from the special bleary-eyed ambiance of vintage witching-hour television, this found-footage curio from Australia’s fraternal writing/directing duo Cameron and Colin Cairnes (who also edit here) considers the Faustian bargain implicit in the ruthless pursuit of household-name celebrity status. Unfolding on Halloween 1977, the bulk of Late Night with the Devil consists of the ostensible final broadcast of Night Owls, a long-running New York talk show hosted by Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), a recently widowed former radio personality morbidly obsessed with unseating Johnny Carson as the king of late night.

In a bid to capitalize on mainstream America’s contemporaneous fascination with the occult—not to mention recent box-office behemoths like The Exorcist and The Omen—Delroy’s roster of guests include Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a showboating psychic who claims to commune with the dead and whose accent sounds like Puerto Rico via Transylvania; Carmichael Haig (Matrix franchise fixture Ian Bliss), a flamboyantly pompous debunker the audience loves to hate; and June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), author of the best-selling Conversations with the Devil. Ross-Mitchell is accompanied by her book’s subject, 13-year-old Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), the sole survivor of a Satanic sect whose Anton LaVey–esque leader compelled his followers to commit mass suicide. Lilly claims to be possessed by an entity she dubs Mr. Wiggles, because of the way he wiggles into her mind and body. Things turn uneasy when Christou becomes violently ill on air and has to be taken away by ambulance, but it’s when Ross-Mitchell puts Lilly in a trance and summons Mr. Wiggles that all hell truly breaks loose.

So long as it stays within the diegesis of the Night Owls broadcast, Late Night with the Devil casts an eerie, alluring spell. Period authenticity abounds in the film’s production design (courtesy of Where the Wild Things Are’s Otello Stolfo), as well as its set decoration, costumes, and props, the show’s title cards, the house band’s pop-funkified musical interjections, and Delroy’s off-color jokes and ribbing of his Ed McMahon–like right hand Gus (Rhys Auteri). Likewise, the performances adhere to the norms of ’70s late-night boob-tube culture while gradually infusing tension: the way Bazzi drops his accent altogether when it seems Christou might genuinely be overwhelmed by an errant spirit, or the subtle manner that Gordon’s face conveys discomfort as it becomes increasingly clear that she’s placed her charge in an unconscionably vulnerable position. Above all, Dastmalchian is so good as a consummate showman unable to disguise his burgeoning inner dread as he begins to recognize that his past betrayals are coming back to haunt him. Dastmalchian will be familiar to many viewers from his supporting turns in films like Oppenheimer and 2021’s Dune, but Late Night with the Devil makes it abundantly clear that the actor is more than capable of carrying the lead.

For all these reasons, it comes as a disappointment when the Cairnes’ third feature strays from the immediacy of the archival-broadcast conceit, breaking the contract of the found-footage format and, more importantly, dissipating the sense of immediacy. At least the film’s weakest passage is dispatched right off the top: there is a lengthy prologue, replete with anonymous voiceover, making generalizations about 1970s U.S. culture and offering point-form analysis of the major sociopolitical events of the day, featuring footage of Nixon, napalm, and the like. This prologue also offers a battery of exposition regarding the history of Night Owls and some of the depths to which Delroy stooped to solicit Nielsen ratings, but all of this could have been more elegantly dispensed with within the actual broadcast, whether through Delroy’s opening monologue or his interactions with his guests—Lilly most obviously. Late Night with the Devil also pivots away from the broadcast during commercial breaks, inserting behind-the-scenes material shot handheld in black and white and using unconvincing camerawork to reveal story points that, again, could have been implied through on-air incidents.

While rigorous adherence to the found-footage form would have created a more immersive experience and ratcheted tensions significantly higher, I want to make clear that Late Night with the Devil is blackly clever, meticulously executed in so many ways, and just a lot of fun, right up to its deeply strange, descent-into-hell coda. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

X: @chiminomatic

How to see Late Night with the Devil

The film opens in theaters on March 22. It will stream on Shudder beginning April 19.
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