‘Late Night with the Devil’ Review: A ’70s Talk Show Host Invites Satan on TV in Clever Found Footage Satire

The Devil has always thrived in chaos, and so there’s no better or more natural place for him to appear than on live TV. That goes double for the live TV of the early ’70s, when an “anything goes” attitude ruled the airwaves, the horrors of the Vietnam War beamed into a hundred million American homes every night, and the devotional trust that people still placed in news anchors and talk show hosts was starting to grow poisoned by the cynical pursuit for higher ratings.

In that light, it was only going to be a matter of time before “Night Owls with Jack Delroy” turned into hell on earth, especially after Jack’s non-smoker of a wife died of terminal lung cancer and the widowed host became more determined than ever to catch up with Johnny Carson. Jack would make any sacrifice necessary to win his midnight time slot, and on Halloween night 1977, during a live broadcast thought to be an urban legend until the recent discovery of the program’s master tape, the devil showed up at the studio to reveal exactly how much his success would cost.

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So begins Colin and Cameron Cairnes’ “Late Night with the Devil,” a clever and cheeky — if not entirely satisfying — found footage horror movie as eager to revitalize its tired subgenre as Jack Delroy is to manufacture new excitement from the stale format of his late-night talk show. They’re both successful to a point.

The Halloween episode of “Night Owls” has a slew of spooky guests working in its favor, including a gifted psychic named Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a priggish magician-turned-skeptic who offers $100,000 to anyone who can verify the supernatural (Ian Bliss as Carmichael the Conjurer), and a parapsychologist whose latest book is about a mass suicide at a Satanic church. Her name is Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), and she’s naturally accompanied by the sole survivor of that tragic incident: Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a prim and all-too-proper teenage girl who claims she’s occasionally possessed by a demon she’s dubbed “Mr. Wiggles.” But, uh, don’t worry about that. I’m sure everything will be just fine.

As for “Late Night with the Devil,” the film’s greatest asset is the show’s greatest liability: “Mr. Midnight” himself, Jack Delroy. Making the most of his first starring role, “Dune” actor David Dastmalchian so expressively inhabits the talk show host’s beige suit and shit-eating smarm that you can read the desperation on his face as if it were a cue card. Meanwhile, the Cairnes brothers’ commitment to the bit — which includes shooting the movie on three swiveling pedestal cameras in a boxy aspect ratio lit with fuzzy, period-appropriate lamps — helps their star feel seem even more at home in his character’s skin.

Dastmalchian’s sunken features cast deep shadows across his face even when he smiles, inviting a hint of darkness into Jack’s studied geniality without revealing whether he’s evil or merely a vessel for it to get some quality airtime. The Cairnes’ script lacks the same ambiguity (a heavy-handed prologue makes it way too easy to predict the ending), but Dastmalchian’s nimble performance as a talk show host who wants to push the envelope without losing his audience’s goodwill allows “Late Night with the Devil” to walk the line between horror and satire without losing its balance until the final minutes. Dorsey’s neediness is scary enough that the movie around him can largely survive on the strength of its atmosphere — on the disquiet created between the playful danger of live TV and the dawning realization that Jack is in over his head.

To that end, gore hounds will be rewarded by a glorious scene of Rob Bottin-esque practical effects, and Torelli’s performance as the sometimes-possessed Lilly is wonderfully unnerving for how it buries Linda Blair-like theatrics under the sort of empty smile that Sydney Sweeney perfected on “The White Lotus,” but “Late Night with the Devil” isn’t the kind of horror film that will leave you shaken with fear. For all of their technical wizardry (which extends to the rather brilliant CGI effects in the third act), the Cairnes are less interested in fraying your nerves than in sowing distrust.

The essence of this movie isn’t found in the brief moment when Christou projectile vomits black goo across the stage, or in the archival footage of Lilly’s parents worshiping the demon Abraxas, but rather in the catty and protracted scenes where Carmichael’s skepticism is challenged by evidence of the supernatural. He insists that psychics and Satan aren’t real, and he’s determined for Americans to know the truth of what they see on TV even if they can appreciate the pleasure of being fooled, but such thinking blinds him to the truth behind June’s mantra that “everyone has a demon inside them.” Carmichael is a naive man in an increasingly cynical world, and — despite his evident gifts as a hypnotist — he fails to appreciate what kind of evil people are capable of welcoming into their hearts and homes along with the warmth of the TV glow. “Late Night with the Devil” fails to deliver an ending as fresh as the rest of the movie. The fact that you’ll see it coming makes it less fun but sure as hell doesn’t make it less honest.

Grade: B-

IFC Films and Shudder will release “Late Night with the Devil” in theaters on Friday, March 22.

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