Film Festival review: Late Night with the Devil

Another pair of Australian filmmaking brothers has come up with a smart and funny horror movie – this one set in the world of late-night talk shows.

Oct 27, 2023, updated Oct 27, 2023

Fun fact: this film’s origins are in a true story about Australia’s own lanky American TV show host from the 1970s and ’80s, Don Lane. Not that guests were spewing black bile on The Don Lane Show, but he did once storm off camera while arguing with a sceptic over whether professional mediums like the British psychic Doris Stokes were the real deal. He apologised the next day but, in his defence, he said people like Stokes brought joy to the world.

This was the germ of an idea for the talented Australian filmmaker brothers Col and Cam Cairnes, whose wacky debut film, 100 Bloody Acres, starred Damon Herriman and was filmed in the Adelaide Hills.

The story of Late Night with the Devil is told mockumentary style. A 1970s talk show host, Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), has all the moves but his Night Owls ratings are never close enough to Johnny Carson to guarantee his next contract. He is getting desperate as he performs practised patter before a studio audience, throwing to his wingman Gus (Rhys Auteri) who is in charge of the house music. We learn that his beloved wife, a former actress, was ill and a segment where she pledged eternal love for Jack through jagged breaths, rated well – even better that she died a fortnight later. Scruples fly out the window.

It’s Halloween in 1978 and Delroy, played with a discerning mix of cheesy patter and fake sincerity by Dastmalchian, has a ripper line-up. He opens with a psychic, Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), in a gold lamé suit who may or may not have channelled the dead son of a woman in the audience before his dramatic departure from the set.

Next is the sceptic, Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss), formerly a conjurer so he knows all the tricks, who debunks Christou’s black vomit as that old regurgitation routine, and offers a cheque for $100,000 for any demonstrable supernatural behaviour.

Now the star turn: paranormal investigator June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) brings on teenage Lilly, who when she was 10 was the sole survivor of a cult that performed ritual suicide.  Some speculate she was saved for a reason. Lilly is bright and confident, happy to be there and ready to channel the one she calls Mr Wiggles.

You know where it’s heading and it does, in a cleverly scripted and well-acted story that never puts a foot wrong, mixing pop culture, satire and humour with enough horror to hold tension.

Along with the recent hit from Adelaide’s Philippou brothers, Talk To Me, it stands as a fine example of Australia’s growing ability to take on the horror genre with independence and flair.

The premise is that we are watching the recovered lost footage of the show in which the Devil popped in as a late-night guest. The larger point is the unsavoury ethics of getting controversy on screen and crossing your fingers, but it is not something to linger over.

In the scramble for ratings, Jack Delroy made a bargain with the Devil: you’ll have to watch the lost Halloween footage to see if there will be a contract renewal.

Late Night with the Devil is screening again on October 28 at Palace Nova Eastend as part of the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival. Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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