REVIEW – ‘Late Night with the Devil’ is tense, thrilling, chilling, and unforgettable

Australian horror has experienced quite a renaissance in the last decade. From Talk to Me and The Babadook to You’ll Never Find Me and Sissy (plus low-budget guilty pleasures like Wyrmwood and 100 Bloody Acres), Aussie filmmakers are consistently proving they can cook up terrors with the best of them. Tackling two well-worn sub-genres of horror that generally feel quite stale, brothers Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes breathe new life into the tropes of demonic possession and found footage films with the terrifically unnerving and deliriously entertaining Late Night with the Devil.

A simple yet wonderfully effective little gem, this stellar supernatural thriller is somehow both nostalgically familiar and impressively fresh. Tense as all hell with a nasty edge and a cheeky attitude, it proves you can still offer something unique in film genres known for failing to surprise. With a palpable sense of dread hovering over practically every frame, it will stand as one of the most fun cinema experiences of the year.

To really hammer home the effect of this being “found footage,” Late Night with the Devil is presented as a complete live television broadcast with “behind-the-scenes” footage taking the place of the commercial breaks. It’s October 31, 1977 and smarmy talk show host Jack Delroy (a marvellous David Dastmalchian) is desperate to snatch ratings gold during “Sweeps Week” with a special Halloween episode of his semi-popular late-night show, Night Owls. After six seasons of living in the large shadow of Johnny Carson and the tragic death of his beloved wife, Madeleine (Georgina Haig), Jack is hoping things might finally start going his way.

The first cab off the rank in the Halloween show is psychic medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), who (poorly) attempts to connect audience members with their dearly departed loved ones. His act is quickly debunked by snarky sceptic and former magician Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss), providing Jack with some heated debate content. But the real star of the broadcast is parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and her young subject, Lilly (a brilliantly unsettling Ingrid Torelli), the sole survivor of a mass suicide committed by a Satanic cult.

As detailed in her scandalous book, Conversations with the Devil, June claims Lilly is possessed by a demon the young girl has nicknamed “Mr. Wriggles,” so-named for how he inexplicably squirms in and out of her mind. Naturally, Carmichael is unconvinced and demands June conjure Mr. Wriggles to prove her outrageous theory on live television. Despite June’s terrified insistence against the idea, Jack pushes the doctor to call forth the evil spirit in a bid to make television history. Indeed, he’ll get his wish…but for all the wrong reasons.

As someone so often (perfectly) cast as creepy supporting characters, Dastmalchian absolutely shines in his first leading role. Why it’s taken this long for the actor to be given his chance as a leading man is beyond me, but thank the lord it’s finally arrived. As the endlessly charming but hopelessly fame-hungry talk show host, Dastmalchian effortlessly dances between Jack’s charismatic on-air persona and the off-air widow chasing ratings in a bid to outrun his grief. This is a man willing to do anything (and, without getting into spoilers, I mean anything) to hold on to his waning celebrity status. Dastmalchian is genuinely riveting to watch, particularly when the show begins to spiral out of control.

The entire supporting cast is an absolute hoot who all innately understand the assignment, but it’s Torelli who gets the film’s most unforgettable role; something she handles with aplomb. Torelli is simply perfect as innocent victim Lilly whose playful, courteous demeanour slowly starts to slip as Mr. Wriggles begins to emerge. Both warmly empathetic and uneasily disquieting, you can’t take your eyes off Torelli. Nor will she take her eyes off you; something that will haunt you long after the credits roll.

The Cairnes brothers’ attention to detail in creating an accurate vintage aesthetic is just as impressive as their ability to craft ungodly horrors. From the rich production design by Otello Stolfo and Steph Hooke‘s period costuming to the authentic staging of a live TV show and the objective style in which cinematographer Matthew Temple films proceedings, you never once feel like you’re not watching an actual VHS tape of a long-lost television program from the 1970s.

At barely 90 minutes long, Late Night with the Devil still runs at a slow-burn pace; something that may frustrate viewers who prefer their horror fast and hard virtually from the get-go. But the Cairnes brothers are experts at building discernible tension, creating a viewing experience that’s all the more satisfying when all hell breaks loose in the terrifying final act. Given the limitations of a found-footage concept centred on an episode of live television, it’s obviously somewhat of a cheat to say someone just so happened to be filming behind-the-scenes content (was that even a thing in the 70s?) that can fill the gaps of commercials. But it’s a minor quibble in a film that gets so much right.

While it still leans into the tropes of films like The ExorcistParanormal Activity, and The Blair Witch ProjectLate Night with the Devil consistently subverts expectations to offer something entirely unique. It’s a premise we’ve never seen before, but one so unsettlingly brilliant that it’s undoubtedly likely to be copied. Tense, thrilling, chilling, smart, and entirely unforgettable, it announces the arrival of a bold new name in the horror game. Strap yourselves in and enjoy.

Distributor: Maslow Entertainment
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Fayssal Bazzi, Ingrid Torelli, Rhys Auteri, Georgina Haig, Josh Quong Tart
Directors: Colin Cairnes, Cameron Cairnes
Producers: Mat Govoni, Adam White, John Molloy, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Derek Dauchy
Screenplay: Colin Cairnes, Cameron Cairnes
Cinematography: Matthew Temple
Production Design: Otello Stolfo
Costume Design: Steph Hooke
Editor: Colin Cairnes, Cameron Cairnes
Music: Glenn Richards Roscoe, James Irwin

Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: 11th April 2024 (Australia)

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