Eyes on the Dream: David Dastmalchian in “Late Night with the Devil” (2023)

Stylized shot of David Dastmalchian speaking to a live audience in Cameron and Colin Cairnes's "Late Night with the Devil".

I often joke about how I enjoy horror films as ‘light entertainment.’ Well, it’s not a joke really, as I do view them as light entertainment, which in turn, results in a bemused expression from the listener. But they are light entertainment! However, what I mean is that I enjoy them for their attempts at suspense and eeriness more so than for anything intellectual, as the best horror will be able to at least build the viewer’s curiosity without resorting to clichéd jump scares and gore.

This is how I felt watching Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil, starring David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy, a 1970s talk show host for the late-night fictional variety show Night Owls. The show, mirroring many of the variety hours throughout the 1970s, can’t seem to reach Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ratings. And while I do not find the film scary, it is at least clever in its delivery. With the orange carpet and the multi-colored striped set, the filmmakers did an excellent job detailing this era—combining character sketches, spinning wheels, channel interruptions, and words from their sponsors. While initially successful, over the years Night Owls’s ratings begin to drop, which resorts to Jack desperately pandering to more Jerry Springer-type routines.

Contemporary horror tends to consist of two types: slasher/gore and exorcism/paranormal, but there are of course exceptions like Alien, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. which often get lumped with sci-fi rather than traditional horror. Quite simply, a horror film’s bad guy must be either some psycho human or an evil entity, including vampires (Vampyr) or zombies (Carnival of Souls). In fact, most of the 1970s and ’80s had such a fixation on the paranormal or slasher that it is not uncommon for today’s horror films to serve as a nostalgic throwback to that era.

Hence, this brings me to the 1970s set Late Night with the Devil, because everything was scarier in the ’70s, right? As the film begins, we’re presented with a history of Jack Delroy’s show, his comedy sketches, his various guests, and his life with his wife till her eventual passing (lung cancer). He even features her on his show two weeks before her death, in a wheelchair, which yields ratings just shy of Carson’s. Unfolding as though a documentary, fast forward to Halloween night, 1977. To boost views, producers go for an occult-theme, inviting a spiritual medium, a hypnotist, a parapsychologist, and a possessed girl who was the lone survivor of a satanic killing. What is unfortunate, however, is that the paranormal, ‘scary’ parts of the film also happen to be the least interesting. Instead, I found myself drawn to Dastmalchian’s excellent performance as this washed-up host, as well as the meticulous detail that went into the recreation of this 1970s variety show.

This isn’t to say that the horror elements are bad, merely sufficient, because far more intriguing would have been a deeper exploration into Jack as a person. He wants to be ‘on top’ of his game—buying into the notion that history only remembers the winners, and yet his ratings continue to lag despite pandering to the lowest common denominator. However, such an introspective angle would have made the film something else entirely, so I digress. Furthermore, the film contains several curious encounters between the embittered skeptic/hypnotist Carmichael Haig and the spiritual medium Christou, in addition to the author parapsychologist June Ross-Mitchell. In short, the skeptic uncovers reasons for why anything strange happens (e.g., the medium is just making cold guesses in the audience, the sudden electrical forces are a result of faulty wires, and the girl’s levitating is the result of hypnosis). This combative back and forth adds layering to the film with regard to seeing vs. believing and reality vs. perceiving echoing the social commentary present within the radio announcer’s voice in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The devilish Lily snarling through her exorcism in Cameron and Colin Cairnes's "Late Night with the Devil".
Lily goes hog-wild during her exorcism.

Yet what is unusual about this low-budget film is how much unfolds within Jack’s mind. Near the end, once the evil entity emerges from the young girl, Jack is taken back into what seems to be a hallucination or dream. To question the paranormal, one must ask what is real from what isn’t. Without giving away the mental clues (because let’s face it—part of the fun of a horror film is watching the mystery unfold) Jack is left, knife in hand—and seemingly he is the only one who remains.

Questions viewers might ask are whether Jack encountered the entity when he visited “The Grove,” which is an elite camp for the rich and powerful (putting me in mind of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), and did his focus on ratings neglectfully contribute to his wife’s death? Just what is the point of any evil entity? What is its purpose? Not all needs to be explained, mind you, as that is part of what these films are for—to make us wonder about those questions unanswered in the first place.

While I didn’t set out to write a review before diving into this ‘light entertainment’, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s fresh approach to what otherwise is a stale theme (exorcism), as well as Dastmalchian’s rendering of a failed husband and host. Horror, as with any genre, is forced into a formula, and this film is no different. However, what could have been a forgettable muddle is instead saved by the film’s vintage detail and the ancillary moments, coupled with Jack’s troubled persona. Late Night with the Devil is not a great film, but it is a very good take on the genre and one that will likely become a Halloween staple. Just what are we but wanderers between the normal and the paranormal? Our eyes remain on the dream.

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More from Jessica Schneider: The Furious Fever Dream: Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985), The Wistful Longing Under the Drink Umbrella: On Roger Donaldson’s “Cocktail” (1988),  Another Side: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (2023)