‘Late Night with the Devil’ Review: The Best Horror Film of the Year Already?

Ghost story writer MR James wrote of the “haze of distance” he liked to employ in his stories. The idea was to set your film within living memory but just past the point of contemporary modernity. He identified 30 years as being optimal to create a sense of mystique around a time period, to make it’s mundanity novel through lack of familiarity. Evil doesn’t seem quite so implausible when cloaked in an air of antiquity.

A 1970s television set is full of such mystery. Colin and Cameron Cairnes frame their narrative as a lost recording of a popular late-night talk show in which the once promising host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) hopes to reverse his failing fortunes with a Halloween special that pulls out all the stops. However, one of his guests is the sole survivor of a Satanist cult’s mass suicide, and she claims to be channelling the devil himself. As the show unravels and chaos reigns, Jack is confronted with the true cost of his fame.

The evocation of the time is critical to the film’s horror. The unnerving sense of authenticity, the great strength of the Found Footage genre when done well, is palpable here. As the show begins, the screenplay very effectively draws you into the age-old debate between sceptics and mystics. Ian Bliss and Laura Gordon play both sides very effectively, dramatizing a script that perfectly captures the titillation of trash TV.

As things start going wrong, some barriers prevent full immersion into the horror elements. After a few effectively menacing and subtle clues that something may be amiss, a character projectile vomits CG blood across the room. The very modern effect breaks the film’s spell, reminding you that you are not watching a haunted tape from the hazy past, but instead a Shudder Original with all the practical limitations that implies. It then takes time for the film to find its feet again, to find the uncanny.

There are, however, some very well-realised practical effects. But as the horror gets louder, it’s easy to lament the more subtle ghost story that could have been told with this material. The film is very reminiscent of the 90s British Horror film Ghostwatch, a film that relished in its subtle scares that trove TV viewers into a frenzy. Late Night with the Devil has similar moments (including a thrilling sequence of a tape being played back frame by frame) and builds towards a climactic bloodbath that is quite exhilarating, but the scares are often just too self-conscious and over-wrought.

Ultimately horror is all about the inexplicable. It’s about leaving the audience with more questions than answers, and in the words of HP Lovecraft, “In all things mysterious, never explain”. Late Night with the Devil explains far too much right up front. A faux-documentary sequence opens the film with a lengthy explanation of David’s stardom so far complete with explanations of the obvious sources of the horror to come, including a mysterious cult and a tragically dead wife. All could have been raised more naturally throughout the film to better effect. It would also be nice to have just a few of the scares remain inexplicable. Glimpses of an evil unknown.

Grounding everything and keeping you invested through the occasional hokum is Dastmalchian who excels in the lead of the film. Veering from the slick professionalism of his cheesy on-air persona to the frightened and hollow man beneath, he is never unconvincing. Hopefully this role shall lead to him taking on greater and more prominent roles.

Late Night with the Devil may overplay its hand and can be frustrating in places, but only because the set up and execution of the core premise is so strong. That this isn’t the best horror film of the year is only frustrating in that is so easily could have been. But as it is, it’s still a fantastic horror film that revitalises many old tropes and is well worth seeing with a crowd.

Four Stars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *