Late Night with the Devil

Led by a hypnotic David Dastmalchian as a talk-show host, this found-footage standout set in the 70s is an Aussie horror delight.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 11, 2024


If David Dastmalchian ever tires of acting, which will hopefully never happen, he'd make an entrancing late-night television host. He even has the audition tape for it: Late Night with the Devil. Of course, the star who earned his first movie credit on The Dark Knight, and has stood out in Blade Runner 2049, The Suicide Squad, Dune and the third season of Twin Peaks — plus Boston Strangler, The Boogeyman, Oppenheimer and Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter all in 2023 alone, alongside Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — might be hoping for a less eerie and unsettling gig IRL. Dastmalchian is a fan of horror anchors, writing an article for Fangoria about them. Here, putting in a helluva can't-look-away performance, he plays one. That said, the namesake of Night Owls with Jack Delroy isn't meant to fit the mould so unnervingly, nor is the series that he's on.

Delroy is a Johnny Carson rival — and, because Australian filmmakers Cameron and Colin Cairnes (100 Bloody Acres, Scare Campaign) write and direct Late Night with the Devil, he's also a Don Lane-type talent — who isn't afraid of embracing the supernatural on his live talk show. On Halloween in 1977, airing his usual special episode for the occasion, he decides to attempt to arrest the flagging ratings of what was once a smash by booking four attention-grabbing guests. What occurs when Delroy, who is grieving the loss of his actor wife Madeleine Piper (Georgina Haig, NCIS Sydney) a year earlier, shares the stage with not only a famous skeptic and a psychic, but also with a parapsychologist and a girl who is reportedly possessed? That might sound like the setup for a joke, but it's this new Aussie horror gem's captivating premise.

To be precise, it's the contents of the October 31 instalment of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, with Late Night with the Devil posed as a documentary about the broadcast that includes the entire show itself. With Michael Ironside (BlackBerry) on narration duties, Delroy gets some backstory first, stepping through Piper's lung cancer diagnosis despite never having smoked, plus Delroy's own affiliation with exclusive and highly questionable Californian men's club The Grove. The 70s gets some context, too, digging into its climate of fear and mistrust post-Manson family murders, and the anger of the decade's reckoning with race relations and the Vietnam War — all reasons put forward to explain why variety entertainment offering pure escapism is having a moment. The fortunes of the series itself from gleaming to flailing are also charted, justifying going all-in on the occult for the Sweeps Week episode that "shocked a nation", as presented in full as found footage from a master tape interspliced with behind-the-scenes material.

If you've seen one evening talk show — from then, now or in-between; whether hailing from the US or Australia (Late Night with the Devil was shot in Melbourne, but packages its content as purely American) — then you know the basic format. Delroy monologues and banters charismatically to begin, albeit with an inescapable sadness that he's endeavouring to plaster over with a smile and 'the show must go on' bravado. So, he starts bringing on his guests. Medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi, Prosper) foresees that something sinister is about to be afoot. Professional cynic Carmichael "the Conjurer" Haig (Ian Bliss, Safe Home), who was once a magician, is all doubt. There to spruik her book Conversations with the Devil, about a girl who was offered up as a Satanic sacrifice by a cult but survived, Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon, Foe) is wary that her text's subject Lilly (Ingrid Torelli, Force of Nature: The Dry 2) isn't ready for the exposure. But with the kid supposedly afflicted with demonic possession, and so much at stake for Delroy and the show, no one is letting her remain off the air.

When The Blair Witch Project made found footage a horror movie go-to 25 years back, sparking too many imitators — most generic and/or terrible — it didn't create the format. Indeed, the gimmick of unearthing tales from previous documents hadn't only been seen on-screen, but is engrained in iconic gothic horror novels Frankenstein and Dracula, both of which deploy correspondence to unfurl their stories. In the post-Blair Witch era, however, inventive and exciting screen uses of the tactic have become increasingly rare. Enter: the Cairnes brothers. The duo also give riffing on Martin Scorsese's 1982 satire The King of Comedy, which Joker did as well, a fresh spin. Late Night with the Devil is the best kind of pastiche: one that knows it, loves it, adores everything that it's drawing upon and is committed to never merely aping its inspirations (which also span Scanners, as Ironside's involvement helps reinforce — plus four-time Oscar-winner Network, which sports a fellow Aussie connection in British Australian actor Peter Finch).

Watching the Halloween chaos of Night Owls with Jack Delroy in real time is a masterstroke: viewers have no alternative but to have the same experience that the show's audience, both in the studio and at home, did at the fateful broadcast — and that Delroy, his crew and guests all shared. Late Night with the Devil is constructed from a raft of equally clever decisions, the most pivotal of which is casting the hypnotic Dastmalchian. There's an Alan Partridge-esque air to the film and its protagonist, transported into literal horror rather than the horrors of cringe comedy, and with the same go-for-broke commitment that's always marked Steve Coogan's (The Reckoning) best-known character. Within the picture's sole setting — another savvy move — Dastmalchian owns the screen. He also grounds Late Night with the Devil's examination of the relationship between celebrity and the attention that mass media brings, aka the cult of personality; it might be easy to paint the price of fame as a Faustian bargain, but it works. 

A performance this perfect and an idea this brilliant receives the execution to match, making sitting down to the movie virtually a time machine. The look, the feel, the detailed production design (by Otello Stolfo, Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe) and costuming (Steph Hooke, The Wheel), the era-specific cinematography (Matthew Temple, Gold Diggers) and editing (by the Cairnes siblings themselves) choices, the commitment to practical effects when the spookfest kicks in after a tense and patient build up: they all ensure that Late Night with the Devil plays like it truly has been newly discovered in a pile of forgotten tapes from decades and decades back. As it conjures up that sensation, this is Cairnes' best film yet, and a delight of a wild ride to watch in one of two ways: in a packed cinema where everyone reacts to its contents like they're in the studio with Delroy; and at home on the couch, glued to the tube like Night Owls with Jack Delroy devotees. Whichever suits, no one is switching off.


Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x