Late Night with the Devil is a Faustian Pact with an Aussie Punch

“Dreamer awake, dreamer awake, dreamer awake”

“The greatest trick the devil played was to convince the world he wasn’t real” or so the quote goes. The greatest trick Cameron and Colin Cairnes are playing on the audience of Late Night with the Devil is pretending the Melbourne shot film is American.

Imagine Johnny Carson meeting Ghost Watch and you have some idea of what the film is about. More specifically, if you’re an Australian you are imagining The Don Lane Show in all its goofy glory and odd sincerity. David Dastmalchian channels the late great “Aussie Yank” as Jack Delroy. A radio host from Chicago who inked a mysterious deal with an even more mysterious company to produce his talk show ‘Night Owls with Jack Delroy.’

A fantastically put together montage narrated by Michael Ironside sets the scene of an America divided. From the Manson family murders, to Vietnam, to race riots; America is turning towards light entertainment to escape their daily woes and Jack Delroy is the man to provide it. Or at least he would be if not for Johnny Carson. Jack’s variety comedy show is consistently an also-ran up against other late-night hosts. Despite initially doing quite well, ratings have been plummeting and sponsors are getting nervous. So on Halloween in 1977 Jack Delroy decides to go all in on a “spoooooky special” during a crucial ratings period and bring in a guest who claims to be possessed by the demon Abraxas.

Cannily playing with found footage genre the Cairnes brothers show that fateful night as captured by a French documentary crew. There is a maxim for live television which posits: “Anything that can happen possibly will happen,” but no one; not even Jack Delroy and his guests can predict just what they unleash on an unsuspecting nation through their television set.

The past few years have not been easy for Jack Delroy. His celebrity actress wife, Madeleine Piper (Georgina Haig) a non-smoker mysteriously contracted lung cancer and died. His “goodbye interview” with her turned out to be one of Night Owls’ highest rating episodes. Delroy’s desperation and depression lead him down an already murky path as he claws on to what little fame he has left.

Late Night with the Devil is upfront about what it is setting out to do. Drawing on influences such as Anton LaVey (here stylised as Szandor D’Abo) the memoir ‘Michelle Remembers’, generalised Satanic Panic and a growing interest in the occult as a science – and the world-renowned magician turned sceptic James Randi. However, it is the way the film configures those influences which makes it a resounding success.

In a tour de force performance David Dastmalchian embodies the complexities of a man who has a lot to feel guilty about. Jack’s connection to the occult is not just giving space to mediums, spiritualists and the like on his show but exists in the shadows of an exclusive Sacred Grove Men’s Club.

The script is witty incisive and continues the Cairnes brothers’ preoccupation with just what some people will do to be famous. In their previous film Scare Campaign a venal and manipulative Reality television producer sets people up for the “fright of their lives” not knowing that there are levels of revenge coming for him.

The Halloween episode starts out innocently enough with Jack doing a back and forth with the audience at home and in the studio. But when he brings on Christou the Medium (Fayssal Bazzi) a cold reading of the audience begins to signify that something more sinister is waiting in the wings. Christou makes contact with something primal and uncontrollable. Brought on as a foil to Christou and the upcoming interview with Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and Lilly D’Abo (Ingrid Torelli) is Carmichael Haig, imbued with deliberate camp by Ian Bliss.

Carmichael can easily explain how Christou manipulated the audience with his cold reading because it is a simple carnival trick which is a long history. There is a clear dislike between Jack and Carmichael which becomes more fraught as the evening progresses. Switching between avuncular host and guest patter to sly and insinuating accusations between Jack and Carmichael the Cairnses delightfully tease what is coming up ‘after a word from our sponsors.’

Something is happening in the studio, something dangerous. When the main cameras are off Jack and his guests and crew, the black and white cameras of the French documentarians remain running. What they capture is not a man filled with bonhomie but one who is willing to do anything and risk anyone for those precious ‘sweeps week’ ratings. Abetted by his producer Leo Fiske (Josh Quong Tart) and with the added stress of the sponsor and his wife being in the audience Jack is already on the verge of a breakdown. How much more is he prepared to sacrifice for success?

Doctor June Ross-Mitchell warns Jack that Lilly is increasingly unstable and has been dissociating and repeating his name over and over. The demon Mr. Wriggle already knows Jack and has seen into his soul. Eventually all of America will see into Jack Delroy’s soul and perhaps lose parts of their own to Abraxas.

Late Night with the Devil benefits greatly from its single location premise and the energy of having a live audience and band interacting with the cast. Made on an extremely limited budget the film looks incredible. From to the set decoration to the period accurate costuming and its constant references to the late-night talk show format (including a blink and you’ll miss it reference to Marcia Hines in the character of Cleo James).

The squishy practical effects are wonderful as too the very wonky digital effects which all add veracity to the 1977 setting. Late Night with the Devil begs for (and deserves) multiple viewings as the film is filled with visual clues and foreshadowing that are tremendously ingenious.

From his opening monologue assisted by band leader, side kick and crowd warmer Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri doing his best Bert Newton) to the scorching finale Dastmalchian doesn’t put a foot wrong. Usually relegated to character roles, David is given the opportunity to express his immense talent for the comedic, the tragic, the terrifying, and the craven.

Just like a late-night talk show itself Late Night with the Devil could have spun out of control. The excellent performances especially by Dastmalchian, Bliss, Gordon, Torelli and Auteri and the near exhaustive research Colin and Cameron put into the script make Late Night with the Devil an Australian horror comedy treasure which deserves every accolade it has received. Even James Randi could not be sceptical of the magic Colin and Cameron Cairnes have created.

Directors: Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes

Cast: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Rhys Auteri

Writers: Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes

Producers: Derek Dauchy, Mat Govoni, Roy Lee, John Molloy, Steven Schneider, Adam White

Music: Glenn Richards (original score), Roscoe James Irwin (music composed & arranged by)

Cinematography: Matthew Temple

Editing: Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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