Late Night With the Devil review David Dastmalchian

Late Night With the Devil is a showcase for the immense talents of David Dastmalchian

3 stars out of 5

In Late Night With the Devil, David Dastmalchian brings to life Jack Delroy, a late-night talk show host who can’t quite measure up. After a sprawling cold-open exposition presented as a leering TV documentary about his career, the film unfolds during a live taping on Halloween night 1977, during sweeps week. Delroy wants something spectacular to happen; he wants to finally beat Johnny Carson in the ratings. In the process, he (un)willingly invites demonic presences onto his sound stage and, through the TV, into the homes of Americans all over the country.

Too often relegated to supporting roles, David Dastmalchian is among the great working American actors. He slips into Delroy like a glove. He hits all the marks of a late-night host, hitting the monologue, directing the show’s energy, handling flubs with grace and self-effacing humour. He has the stance and self-awareness to sell his role as a talk show host. Dastmalchian balances a compassionate awareness of those around him and a maniacal self-serving drive. His real skill as an actor, though, is selling a late-night performer who is very good but not the best. His expression, especially in brief moments of repose, is haunted and stressed. His cool exterior only barely conceals his desperate need to be number one. It’s the type of uncomfortable energy that would undercut someone’s success. 

Late Night With the Devil review David Dastmalchian
David Dastmalchian in Late Night With the Devil

This becomes the most compelling part of the film, and as the narrative unfolds, the central arc of its horror. While set in the 1970s, once viewed as the height of American narcissism by thinkers like Christopher Lasch, the film captures the worsening trend of self-delusion and fame-obsession emblematic of our age. People want to be famous or great without doing the work. In some ways, Late Night With the Devil has a more conservative and libertarian view. It’s not that Delroy isn’t working hard, it’s just that there’s a chance his best is just not good enough. Some people are intrinsically better than others.

It’s not worth jumping into the film to nitpick how it does or does not capture its era’s live TV aesthetic. It’s mostly good and geared towards appealing to a contemporary audience, leaning on familiar reference points. The editing and framing of the show are similarly more modern, attempting to be less alienating than the slower, more wide-focus of the past. The film does take a major misstep, though it’s clearly in service of not losing the viewer or leaning too heavily into the aesthetics of “found footage cinema.” As they cut to the commercial break, the film goes black and white and adopts a documentary-style handheld camera aesthetic that borders on nauseating. It allows us to see the characters in “off” mode and fill in key moments of exposition. Aesthetically, the change is jarring and doesn’t quite make sense. It ends up feeling like the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to work around those pieces of information through the live TV format or were afraid utilizing the TV cameras off-air would be too structural and contrived. Though necessary to understand the full scope of events, it feels like a cop-out and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film.

Late Night With the Devil review David Dastmalchian
Night Owls, Halloween 1977

As the Halloween live show continues, increasingly strange incidents haunt the taping. The energy is off-kilter, and the live audience, like the film viewer, is unsure where reality and fiction end. Delroy’s nervous energy similarly becomes more opaque. Is he powering through because “the show must go on,” or does he have a hand in the strange incidents plaguing this cursed night?

As Late Night With the Devil plays out, the film embraces some gruesome horror scenes. Not all are created equally; some CGI is clumsy, particularly toward the beginning. The film does feature one central set piece that plays on a common phobia with remarkable and horrifying results. For blood and guts horror fans, the movie is almost worth watching for that sequence alone. It’s shocking and further unsettles the audience’s understanding of reality. It’s all around one of the best moments of the movie. 

Ingrid Torelli, David Dastmalchian and June Ross-Mitchell in Late Night With the Devil
Ingrid Torelli, David Dastmalchian and June Ross-Mitchell in Late Night With the Devil

But Late Night With the Devil only becomes more frustrating as it runs towards its finish line. The behind-the-scenes sequences ironically undercut some of the pleasure of late-night TV, where the relationships between host and guest are loaded with innuendos and insinuations inaccessible to the at-home audience. We are given too much information, spoiling some of the film’s tension. The straightforward approach makes sense in many ways. A film that is too fixed on doing a “real” live TV show might easily feel too much like an arthouse project than a real movie, but on the other hand, here it feels like we’re being spoonfed a little too much. Not unlike Delroy’s fear of being cancelled, there’s a fear in the making of the film that if you let the audience linger a little too long, you’ll lose them entirely. Is this a found footage movie, or isn’t it? The filmmakers hedge their bets by aspiring to both at the same time, only making the experience more muddled than it needed to be. 

Still, Late Night With the Devil is mostly pleasurable. If you don’t let its weaknesses swallow up the experience, the performances, aesthetics and even narrative impulse are quite strong. It’s increasingly frustrating that the filmmakers compromise on other aspects of the live TV event, but overall, the results are above average. The characterizations are embodied overall; each character is written and performed with a strong sense that they exist beyond merely serving the film, with rich inner lives and backstories. Late Night With the Devil is a clever showcase of its filmmaker’s skills and an even greater platform for David Dastmalchian’s immense talents. ■

Late Night With the Devil (directed by Cameron and Colin Cairnes)

Late Night With the Devil is currently playing in select Montreal theatres and streaming on Shudder.

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