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Infernal Technical Difficulties

We still have talk shows, and we still have late night talk shows, but not the way they used to be. Bill Maher still trots out his weaponized snark to gab about politics and get mad at the youths. Jimmy Kimmel trots out his weaponized snark to trigger Donald Trump, as does Stephen Colbert. 

But perhaps the strangest of all is Jimmy Fallon. If you’re not of a prehistoric age like I am, you might be wondering why that is. Fallon has popular celebrities on his show, plays games with them, never asks awkward questions or makes things weird. His show is literally a safe space, so what’s weird about that. Well…Jimmy Fallon is the host of The Tonight Show, and if you’re…um…a reader of a certain age, you can appreciate how odd it is that Fallon transformed what that show was into its current incarnation. 

In the Before Times, The Tonight Show was a thing that essentially everybody watched. Its host was Johnny Carson, a quick-witted Midwesterner with a light touch of the Rat Pack about him. His jokes were clever, but not mean-spirited. His questions were intelligent without being ass-kissy. There was a reason, for years upon years, that Carson was called The King of Late Night.

Since Carson was the King, it stands to reason that there must have been people looking to topple him from his throne. What kind of a person would do that? More importantly, how far would a person like that go in order to force viewers to tune into their show? That’s the premise of the clever horror film Late Night with the Devil.

We’re introduced to Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of “Night Owls.” His show is popular. It holds steady in the number two position, and Jack nips at the heels of Johnny Carson. Why? Jack’s an intelligent guy, relatively witty, and he possesses the ability to seem genuine on television. He’s also got a sidekick, Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri), who has a seemingly boundless appetite for humiliation. 

All is right in Jack’s world, until it slowly isn’t. His wife Madeleine (Georgina Haig) dies from cancer, agonizingly slowly. Inasmuch as anyone in the industry can love anyone else, Jack loves Madeleine. From there, Jack isolates himself. When he returns from mourning, he sees that slowly but surely, his ratings begin to drop. That’s when Jack commits the worst possible sin in the industry, the sin of desperation.

We catch up to Jack during the Halloween broadcast of his show in 1977. He’s been reduced to gimmicks, stunts to catch the increasingly fleeting attention span of television viewers. One of his guests is Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a self-proclaimed “seer” who claims he can channel the dead. Can he? Is it more likely that he’s someone who pays attention to body language and probabilities?

That skepticism is where Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) comes in. He’s a professional skeptic, a guy who smugly explains away any and all supernatural happenings, and Jack enjoys the conflict he brings as a guest. But Carmichael’s skepticism will be working overtime with Dr. June Ross-Mitchell. She’s a parapsychologist studying the case of Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), a teenage girl who just might have friends in very low places.

Late Night with the Devil works for a number of reasons, and chiefly among them is its commitment to specificity. Directors Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes recreate the low-rent vibe of 1970s television, the terrible fashion, the shameless cheese and cutthroat backstage politicking. For better than eighty percent of the film, the Cairnes commit to the bit hard that what we’re seeing is a lost broadcast where something awful is going to happen. It’s impressive as hell, and despite the final five to ten minutes not quite living up to the dread promised, the Cairnes’ direction is smart and creative.

The Cairnes wrote the screenplay, and they’re just as focused on characterization and theme. While the Satanic Panic reached its apex in the 80s, it was a welcome guest in the minds of gullible Americans in the 70s, and the script has great fun satirizing the “experts” that crawled out of the woodwork. It also nails the kinds of people flocking around “Night Owls,” from the nice guy host to the put-upon sidekick to the scumbag executive producer to the credulous audience. Good screenwriting is all about showing rather than telling, and this script shows us everything we need to know about these people and their world.

If you’ve seen David Dastmalchian, you’ve seen him playing supporting roles exclusively. He was one of the Joker’s pawns in The Dark Knight, Scott Lang’s Eastern European buddy in Ant-Man, and vampire chow in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, among many others. Here, he’s the lead, and Dastmalchian delivers a confident and strong lead performance. Behind the folksy charm and plastic confidence, Jack is terrified of losing everything. We see that in brief flashes, since Jack is enough of a pro not to lower his shields when the camera is on. I also had a ball with Ian Bliss’ obnoxious Carmichael, and the complex performance by Laura Gordon as June. Does June genuinely care for the traumatized Lilly? Yes. Will June also exploit the damaged young woman and justify that to herself? Also yes!

Late Night with the Devil shows us a talk show that could only take place in the 70s, for good and ill. It’s a film of great cleverness, smart humor, with some genuinely disturbing moments. My only question now, is anyone talking to Fallon about the sequel?



Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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