Selling Your Soul for Ratings, in Late Night

‘Late Night With the Devil’ is not your ordinary found footage horror film.

IFC Films
The film 'Late Night with the Devil' turns the formula for the found footage horror film on its head. IFC Films

“Late Night with the Devil” is a movie about a ratings-challenged talk show from the 1970s that happens to have two of its production elements fabricated. The show’s host Jack Delroy (David Dastmachian of “Dune” and “Oppenheimer”), had been struggling with the ratings against the popular Johnny Carson and mourns the loss of his wife from lung cancer.

For his Halloween special, “Night Owl”, he assembles a specific array of guests – a psychic, a skeptical magician, and a parapsychologist –  in an attempt to save the show from any cancellation. It’s the parapsychologist’s subject, Lilly, who was found to be the only survivor of a mass suicide at a Satanic church, who Mr Delroy hopes will get his show attention. 

Directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, “Late Night with the Devil ” is structured like an investigative documentary that shows what looks like a master tape of the television broadcast. We see the uneasy tensions between the host and guests which expose Mr Delroy’s declining ability as the MC of his own show. The commercial breaks play in between, in black and white.

Horror’s found footage genre has become almost ordinary in the 25 years since “The Blair Witch Project,” But “Late Night With The Devil” is not your conventional  found footage film. There’s no dim lighting, no hallways shot on a grainy hand held camera. And as luck would have it, the Cairnes brothers might have exploited this storytelling cheat to their advantage. For one, the source of the found footage is fascinating, because of its time period.

By swimming into the rupture of the 1970s, it means that the Satanic Panic, New Age curiosity and empirical (albeit, smug) skepticism can converge in the “Night Owl” through a specific set of misguided circumstances. Tension comes from the guests bickering, especially the skeptical magician (Ian Bliss) who is rather condescending to everyone, including the psychic and the demon child. 

The spectacle of the satirical elements of mass media capitalizing on controversy is made stronger by Mr Dastmachian’s towering central performance, which combines his character’s desperation and exhaustiveness into something tragic. For Mr Delroy, his losses are cursed, literally, by his guests and sidekicks slowly turning on him.  Mr Dastmachian can make your skin crawl, not because his character is bug-eyed and scary (although he has previously played creeps in “The Dark Knight” and “Prisoners”), but because his character is very human beneath the shallow sheen of fame. 

IFC Films

However, there is one thing that needs to be addressed. The film has caused some controversy, when it was revealed that the artwork used during a commercial break was AI generated. This resulted in vocal calls to boycott the film, with some critics saying that it sets a chilling precedent by squandering opportunities for creatives.

AI art is justifiably frowned upon, but the situation that the Cairnes brothers put themselves into make its usage more complicated. One may argue that the usage of AI enhances the artificiality of “Night Owl” and it emphasizes how much of a false prophet Mr. Delroy is. Perhaps this is the setback implied by critics of “Late Night with the Devil”. It’s also supposed to be bring mystery, like Mr Delroy’s personal life, which includes his connection to Bohemian Grove, 

There is also the fact that AI has been used across all movies in the industry. This was a  basis for  the writers and actors strikes last year (“Late Night with the Devil” premiered at SXSW in March 2023 before the strike came into fruition). The “Road House” remake has been accused, by the screenwriter of the 1980s original, of using AI to voice characters. Where is the uproar in that, and why is it laser focused on an indie horror film, rather than a streaming movie with a larger budget.

“Late Night with the Devil” doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing, nor does it require human labor to amend whatever narrative sins it has. What it needs to be is a serious movie, artificial or not. Thus I will still recommend the film. “Late Night with the Devil” is less a found footage horror film, and more a sober character study of a media personality losing all control of the events around him. 

The New York Sun

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