What is it that we think of when we think of late-night television? With a few exceptions, it is built around a simple formula of jokey monologues, rotating guests, and the occasional musical performance. It is also an illusion as everything is prewritten, including the very questions that will be asked of the guests. Playing around with this formula to create a unique take on a classic horror story, Late Night with the Devil is a frequently sinister if persistently slight genre flick. Set during the 1970s, it stars David Dastmalchian as the fictional late-night host Jack Delroy, who is trying to boost ratings by any means possible. His show, “Night Owls with Jack Delroy,” has become far more sleazy and sensational, which we see via an extended mockumentary-esque opening, though nothing seems to work. Desperate for a big Halloween show, he decides he is going to tempt fate by communing with unknown forces live on air.

What starts out as being more silly than scary soon turns into a descent into darkness that may consume Jack and everyone else that is watching at home. Though the host continues to ham it up for the crowd and play up their fears when the cameras are rolling, he begins to suspect that something may be going truly awry. It is that juxtaposition between the personality he puts on for the audience and the stressed-out man he tries to hide from everyone that the film is most interested in. Alternating between the initially contrived broadcast and behind-the-scenes bickering about how everything else is going, it is largely confined to this single episode. Part is shot in brighter colors with wider shots that cut back and forth between television subjects while the other is handheld footage that is shot in black-and-white. This is all carefully controlled and makes for quite a bit of setup before really diving into darkness. When it breaks free of these constraints to embrace the evils lurking, both in small moments as well as the big conclusion, it proves to be fearsome fun.

Helmed by longtime indie horror filmmakers Colin and Cameron Cairnes, who have a clear affinity and love for the genre, it wears its influences on its sleeve. It would be incorrect to call it a spoof of works like The Exorcist as it feels more like a riffing on them as it borrows key elements. Without tipping off too much of where it takes us, there is a young character who is introduced whose eyes and voice bring with it a whole cinematic history that is then made into something new. There is also a dark humor to much of the experience that usually lands quite effectively. There is one moment where the horrors of what just unfolded have temporarily abated, and the band then plays them off as they go to commercial. When it cuts to the stunned crew who are not certain of what to say, it serves to elicit a chuckle just as it creates a chill. When confronting the uncanny, the unexplainable, all one can do is either laugh or cower in fear. The film isn’t afraid to be absurd, but there is a real craft to the horror underneath it. As the canned laughter from the crowd fades, all that is left is the cowering.

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There is still an element of the film that feels like the found footage framing can be too restricting. Where there are recent works like The Outwaters that upend the conventions of the subgenre, Late Night with the Devil isn’t quite willing to take the extra leap needed to fully break free of it. Some of the incongruity between the unrestrained madness unfolding and the structured television set helps to wrong-foot us as an audience, bringing into focus just how banal such broadcasts can be by pushing them to a breaking point. Unfortunately, there are also moments when it tries to rein itself back in when it didn’t need to. One sequence of body horror midway through is magnificent, full of worms plus exploding viscera, and represents a moment where there is a real unpredictability to what is actually happening.

That the film later undoes much of this, offering an explicit explanation that undercuts the gory thrill of what happened, makes it feel like it stumbles just before the finale. It manages to move beyond this misstep by pulling back the curtain completely, collapsing the constructed world of late night into the supernatural one alongside it. As the broadcast then becomes maddeningly surreal, it really finds a sweet spot. One just wishes that it lingered in this liminal space between what is real and what isn’t for longer as opposed to being blunt in the answers it gives. Pushing us into the unknown and the terrors to be found there is where it shines.

Similarly, this is where Dastmalchian really comes alive even as the characters begin to die. Where before he had played the troubled man with a forced charisma to fill the shoes of a late-night host, it is when we see who Jack really is as everything becomes warped where his fear becomes our own. As he begs and pleads for people to turn off the television with the crowd laughing maniacally, Dastmalchian’s terrified face atop his perfect suit reveals how much things are falling apart around him. He is the grounding force in the unexpected nightmares, making one of the grim final revelations into something as spectacular as it is sinister.

Though much of everything playing out is built around the bizarre joke of the late-night show he is doing, he takes everything seriously and makes it all that much more wonderfully eerie as a result. There is still much holding it back, but when Late Night with the Devil casts off the tenuous bindings it is using to hold back chaos, it arrives at something more frightfully fun.

Rating: B

Late Night with the Devil premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.

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