Late Night with the Devil: self-possessed horrors

Horror films live and die by their conceits. And sometimes, the best way to make a movie scary is to place it in an environment that’s not scary at all.

Is there anything further from spooky than a brightly lit TV studio? The surprise box office darling Late Night with the Devil, which hit horror streamer Shudder this weekend (and might be more suited to home viewing), tries to make one of the most innocuous American broadcast traditions into a terror. David Dastmalchian, a character actor who you’ll recognize from the margins of half a dozen Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve movies, gets a rare star turn as Jack Delroy, the host of late-night talk show Night Owls. But in an era where Johnny Carson rules after-hours broadcast, Delroy’s second-place program is on the verge of getting canceled. The only way to save it, Delroy believes, is to air an extraordinary Halloween episode about the occult in the middle of sweeps season.

Aside from a bit of superfluous expository setup, the entire film is faux found footage of the episode, complete with a live studio audience and commercial breaks. (Between ad gaps, there are some behind-the-scenes shots as well.) If you like a low-budget horror movie that constricts its location to a single house, you’ll dig that Late Night restrains itself to a convincingly rendered ‘70s talk show set. As the guests’ paranormal features escalate, so do the demons — personal and literal — until reaching an inevitable, violent end.

Sometimes, a horror movie can be satisfying enough just by pursuing a strong conceit and not embarrassing itself along the way. Still, things are played a bit safe here. Without giving much away, Late Night does feel a little by the numbers in the final act. Most people will recognize the beats — vomit, levitation, Satanic voice — from any movie about demonic possession. (Though in a knowing moment, one character says, “‘Psychic infestation’ is the term we prefer.”)

Sure, nothing here touches the brilliant novelty of last year’s Skinamarink, but the best thing going for Late Night is its dedication to the conceit. The disparity between the cheery TV format and the creeping dread sustains the tension throughout its brief 93 minutes.

Mostly, Late Night with the Devil is charming and clever, and Dastmalchian and his sideburns make the work look effortless. Like any talk show host worth their salt, it’s all about committing to the bit.

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