‘Late Night With the Devil’ Review: Selling Your Soul for the Ratings

“Late Night With the Devil” is trimly effective horror of a rare sort: I found myself wishing, halfway through my screening, that I was watching it on my TV. Not because it doesn’t work in a theater — horror almost always benefits from being seen in a crowd — but because its writer-director duo, the brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes, make shrewd use of some of the uniquely creepy things about television, especially its intimacy. The TV set is in your house, and you’re sitting six feet away from it, and especially in the wee hours of the night, whatever’s staring back at you can feel eerie, or impertinent. Over time, the late night TV host becomes your best friend, or a figure that haunts your fitful dreams.

That’s why people watch late night TV, of course: to laugh, to be entertained and to feel some kind of companionship when the rest of the world goes to bed. “Late Night With the Devil” twists that camaraderie around on itself, layering in familiar 1970s horror tropes about demonic possession, Satanism and the occult. The result is a nasty and delicious, unapologetic pastiche with a flair for menace. I had a blast.

The host of the movie’s invented late night talk and variety show is Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), a younger, snappier Johnny Carson who is desperate to climb to the top of the ratings. Framed as found footage wrapped in a pseudo-documentary, the film briefly fills us in on Delroy’s career trajectory hosting “Night Owls With Jack Delroy,” a show that can’t quite overtake its competitors. As narration informs us that Delroy is risking going down in history as an also-ran — always Emmy nominated, never the winner — we learn that we’re about to watch the night that “shocked a nation.”

On Halloween night, 1977, the first in the crucial sweeps week for “Night Owls,” Delroy and his producers come up with a desperate, last ditch idea to spike ratings: they design a show full of spectacle that will tap into the cultural craze for all things occult. The guest list that night includes a medium and a skeptic, plus a parapsychologist and the girl she’s been treating for demonic possession. The master tapes have been found, the narrator informs us, and that’s what we’re about to see. Buckle up.

All of these characters seem familiar. Carmichael the Conjurer (Ian Bliss), the film’s abrasive skeptic, seems based on James Randi, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” to debunk others’ claims to paranormal abilities, most notably the illusionist Uri Geller in 1973. Randi also confronted mediums on live TV (such as this film’s Christou, played by a hammy Fayssal Bazzi) and was an outspoken critic of parapsychology.

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