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The late night talk show has been a television staple as far back as the late ‘40s, though its form would crystalize and surge in popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The format relied on humor; it’s late at night, so why not relay the news or conduct interviews with biting wit for entertainment? Late Night with the Devil captures the chaotic energy of a late night show, embracing the irreverent comedy and stress of live television with a pastiche style. It’s a clever trojan horse for a surprising horror movie that goes full throttle on unhinged demonic mayhem.

Late Night with the Devil introduces host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) and his syndicated talk show “Night Owls.” The late night TV show is a ratings darling thanks to its charming host, but that changes shortly after his wife passes away. Facing cancellation and pressures from execs, Jack goes all in on a Halloween special that includes psychics, skeptics, and parapsychologists among his roster of guests as part of the Halloween festivities. Coordinating all of the bold personalities and moving parts of live television becomes all the more unpredictably stressful when a demonic entity disrupts the event. 

Writers/Directors Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes hit the ground running with a rapid-fire documentary-style setup introducing essential exposition and personal stakes for Jack a year before the ill-fated event. Cut to October 31, 1977, where the night plays out in real-time, complete with pauses for commercial breaks. Those commercial breaks highlight the dichotomy between the carefully curated façade of live television with the barely contained anarchy unfolding behind the scenes. Makeup artists, producers, camera operators, and staff scurry to complete tasks before the break ends while Jack attempts to maintain control and keep guests happy.

This carefully organized chaos, staged with tracking shots through the bustling set, showcases just how precarious such an endeavor is; anything and anyone could derail Jack’s hopes for a ratings bonanza in seconds. The Cairnes’ stack the odds against their protagonist through various obstacles, erratic behavior from interviewees, and job pressures so successfully that it wholly distracts from the opening warning to expect horror. 

That’s bolstered by Dastmalchian’s pitch-perfect portrayal of a tenured late night TV host that knows how to evoke audience reactions, when to turn up the charm for the camera, and how to smooth over prickly guests, all while masking his grief. Those minor, subtle glimpses behind the curtain of Jack’s showbusiness persona are where Dastmalchian injects the most pathos and complexity; especially when opposite guests June (Laura Gordon) and Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), who both manage to coax out Jack’s empathetic side.

The gradual build from pastiche but entertaining into full-blown nightmare comes fast, like a freight train. The Cairnes’ effectively layer in clues that Jack’s night will devolve into demonic horror. Still, the filmmakers so effectively distract with the behind-the-scenes mayhem that by the time the third act arrives, it seems like the narrative will continue on autopilot. We trust that Jack is in control; he’s managed smoothly so far. That’s when Late Night with the Devil forgoes the familiar formula of demonic horror. Instead, it becomes a raucous showcase of grisly moments and shocking imagery that are hard to shake.

Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes, behind the reality TV inspired horror-comedy Scare Campaign, once again present an infectious recreation of television run through an unrestrained horror lens. In capturing the intensity of producing a live televised event, their latest can often feel overwhelming in its rapid pacing. There’s so much happening, often at once, that it can be easy to miss key information. But the ingenuity, the painstaking period recreation, a riveting performance by Dastmalchian, and a showstopper of a finale make for one Halloween event you won’t want to miss.

Late Night with the Devil made its World Premiere at SXSW. Release info TBD.

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