In illustrated, news, Review

Original caricature by Jeff York of the main cast of LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL (copyright 2024)

The funny thing about horror films is that once the premise is set up – a shark infests local waters, an alien has invaded a compound, a serial killer is loose at a campsite – you know what’s coming. The fun of the film comes in how the horrific moments arrive, hopefully with enough surprises that the audience never gets ahead of the story. And with a title like LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL, you fully expect all hell to break loose with an imminent visit by his eminence himself or at least his Satanic minions. That’s precisely what makes this new frightener so fun – you know hell is coming, but it arrives with such wit, surprises and pizazz, you cannot help but be dazzled.

Writer/directors Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes bring cleverness to every moment, often dappling scenes with foreshadowing and symbolism, and they know how to riff on horror tropes and period details with relish as well. Their film’s setting is a 1970s late-night talk show where host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) is sweating because his show is on the verge of cancellation. And within that show, from the sets to the clothing, to the aping of themed conversations like those that used to be part and parcel of the talk shows hosted by Dick Cavett, Geraldo Rivera and David Susskind, the Cairnes get everything right. Heck, even their cinematography comes with that grainy old 70s video quality to it.

Delroy thinks the answer to his ratings resurrection is a Halloween-themed show on October 31st designed to scare audiences to be glued to the tube. He’s booked an author with a bestseller about demonic possession, and even better, the show has landed the possessed girl to appear as well. Writer June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) arrives with her charge, the young and earnest Lilly D’Abo (Ingrid Torelli) so Delroy can, as he puts it, “commune with the Devil.” To guarantee even more drama and controversy, Delroy’s guest list also includes arrogant myth buster Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) and the clairvoyant Christou (Fayssal Bazzi).

Of course, we know such a mix is bound to produce one controversial show, but the Cairnes’ take their sweet time in teasing and tantalizing us before unleashing a hellzapoppin finale. First, they create slyly done exposition throughout to ground us in Delroy’s “Night Owls” TV show. Through a brilliantly done montage of clips we get a sense of his character, his style of interviewing, and even the silly skits he does on his nightly show. The ‘clip package’ also creates empathy for the poor mensch Delroy as he recently lost his loving wife to the throes of cancer. (In those days, few survived it.) From there, the Cairnes brothers drop us into the night’s hallowed eve show and we wait with bated breath.

Christou comes out first and isn’t long for the telecast as he becomes dramatically ill. As he’s carted away in an ambulance, Delroy’s sidekick Gus (Rhys Auteri) frets that such a turn in the guest’s health is an omen of bad things to come. Delroy isn’t so sure and pushes on full steam ahead. Soon, after Haig, June and Lilly are brought out onto the set as well, and when Lilly is placed in a hypnotic state to conjure Beelzebub, no good can come from bad. And horror fans should be very pleased.

The Cairnes build dread exponentially with great skill, and when their story turns violent, they don’t hold back. The carnage plays all the better because we care about the characters that the Cairnes have written, and all of the cast does a sharp job in bringing them to life. Particularly terrific is Dastmalchian in his first leading man role. His Delroy may be naive and too driven by the need to succeed, but the veteran actor ensures that his host is also decent, likable, and very sympathetic.

The Cairnes do a sly job with their various pop culture references too. When Lilly first walks onto the set, her gait will remind you of Eve Plumb’s Jan Brady, a trouble teen on TV in the 70s if there ever was one. The show’s second banana Gus bears a clearly intentional physical resemblance to Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank Kingsley character from HBO’s 90s sitcom THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. And the reactions to all that is going on amidst the fellas in Delroy’s band is a hoot too, conjuring the band’s silliness on Johnny Carson’s THE TONIGHT SHOW.

A similar wit is woven into all of the frights too. Lilly’s face changes numerous times, albeit subtly, as her possession takes hold. (Her hairline recedes, her brow becomes more animalistic, and the color of her hair darkens – echoed in my accompanying caricature.) Delryo’s audience is dotted  with many in demonic costume. Are they minions too? And the victims’ demises have a “hoisted on their own petard” justice to them that is both unsettling and quite cheeky.

LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL is as fun as it is frightening. It’s easily one of the most enjoyable horror films in many a moon, with the Cairnes toying with the audience, but playing up to them at all times, rather than down to them. They revel in their 70s setting and want us to delight in all they’re riffing on as well while sending well-earned shivers up our spines.

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