Having a premiere at SXSW last year turned out to be a charm for directing duo The Daniels, and although awards lightning most likely won’t strike this year for this somewhat niche horror pastiche, hopefully its creators — Australian double-act the Cairnes brothers — will get their own media moment as a result. That Late Night With the Devil is one for the myriad genre festivals that abound internationally is a no-brainer, but the Cairneses deserve a bit more consideration than that for their film’s wry engagement with U.S. history and pop culture, despite shooting their New York-set film entirely in Melbourne.
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While the premise is quite simple, there’s an awful lot to get through before we ever get to that. Most of it could be seen as superfluous — a montage of early ’70s newsreel clips gives us images of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the Manson trial and (jumping the gun a bit) David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz” — but they do set the scene: this is the America of The Ice Storm, a country about to be terrified by The Exorcist and mollified by the far, far away galaxy of Star Wars. Into this between-time walks Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), a radio announcer from Chicago who starts the five-nightly chat show Night Owls in April 1971 and instantly becomes a success, second only to Johnny Carson.
We learn this is in a prologue that, sitting somewhere between Citizen Kane’s “News on The March” sequence and Amber Waves’ documentary about Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, fills in a lot of backstory. As Delroy’s star rises, tabloid gossip starts to swirl around his involvement with The Grove, a Masonic group dismissed as “a summer camp for the rich and powerful,” although some disagree. “Speculation persists,” we hear, “about his taste for arcane ceremony and his power to make and break careers.” His ascent to the near-top of the ratings runs in sharp counterpoint to his private life, notably when his beautiful “It Girl” wife Madeleine (Georgina Haig) succumbs to a fatal cancer that has doctors baffled, at least according to the headlines on the New York Express.
All this, and we haven’t even started yet. After a spell out of the spotlight, Delroy is back, back, back, working hard to work his way back up the ratings. There might be a little too much insider baseball here, with Delroy constantly talking about “sweeps week,” which may require a bit of Googling from those unfamiliar with Nielsen ratings. There are also some enjoyable period flourishes, like the chalkboard bearing the name of upcoming guests: Paul Lynde, Elsa Lanchester, John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell (for some reason, Billy Joel is scratched out). But, once again, it does serve a function, laying bare the brutal machinery of the talk show: a conveyor belt fed by personality, novelty and whim.
Which is why Delroy decides to pull all the stops out for his 1977 Halloween special, booking a clairvoyant, Christou (Faysal Bazzi); a professional skeptic, Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss); and an occult researcher, June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), who brings along Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), the subject of her recent bestseller about a child survivor of a Satanic cult (coincidentally, the very on-point moral-panic documentary Satan Wants You is also screening at the festival).
What could possibly go wrong? Plenty! “What you about to see is the recently discovered master tape of what went to air that night,” we are told, a promise pushed to feature length by previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage that offers a ringside seat at “the live TV event that shocked the nation.”
What actually follows is slightly hamstrung by such hyperbole, since this “found” black-and-white behind-the scenes-footage uses multiple cameras, shooting supposedly candid off-air discussions between Delroy and his gonzo producer in a distractingly professional shot-reverse-shot format. But otherwise the Cairneses’ film, with its changing aspect ratio, analog-video look, house band and banter, is pretty good on the rituals of late-night TV, and Dastmalchian — aka The Suicide Squad’s Polka-Dot Man, who looks like a police artist’s sketch of Andy Kaufman — fully inhabits the idea of the chat-show host as a shamanic conduit between blue-collar reality and the ectoplasmic otherworld of show business. And though the period atmosphere may not be quite as authentic as the kind we’ve seen in Ti West’s many throwback horrors, the naïve spirit of American ’70s TV is very credibly evoked, raising comparisons with the two 2016 movies about the ill-fated Florida news reporter Christine Chubbock: Christine and Kate Plays Christine.
Interestingly, rejecting the common early ’70s exploitation-movie trope of people meddling with things they don’t understand, Delroy does not intend to summon the devil, but, through a series of escalating plot twists, that’s where the night takes him, when Lilly opens the door to a demon called Mr. Wriggles (a not-so-subtle nod to The Exorcist’s Captain Howdy). The journey is unpredictable and fun, and it would be mean-spirited to spoil the ways in which it throws up surprises, but all this overload gives way to an anarchic and queasily surreal denouement, which pulls us back to the film’s beginning and its presaging of shadowy occult forces that may have somehow midwifed the meteoric rise of Jack Delroy.
It’s a shame because the Cairneses’ film doesn’t need this kind of excess baggage, since it delivers so well on the organic goose-bump level of a well-told urban myth (like the UK’s 1992 BBC show Ghostwatch, for example). But if it’s to be essentially a mock-doc, it’s an ingenious one; a good comparison might be Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995), in that, for as long as the show is on air, the film draws on the mercurial zeitgeist of its chosen time to create a surprisingly credible fiction. And whether the ending disappoints or not (some may argue that it adds a satirical layer), this subtle what-if? fusion of Network and Rosemary’s Baby is experiential, intelligent and a pretty good (late) night out.
Title: Late Night With the Devil
Festival: SXSW, Midnighters
Directors: Colin and Cameron Cairnes
Screenwriters: Colin and Cameron Cairnes
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Georgina Haig, Faysal Bazzi
Running time: 1 hr 32 min
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