The 21st century has been a boom for Australian horror and genre directors.

In the past 24 years have gifted us with classics like The Babadook, Wolf Creek, Hounds of Love, Snowtown and The Loved Ones. Last year saw the overwhelming (and wholly deserved) international success of Talk to Me.

Now, there’s another Australian film that looks set to continue that success internationally: Colin and Cameron Cairnes’ Late Night with the Devil.

Late Night with the Devil

Written, edited and directed by the Cairnes Brothers, Late Night with the Devil is an eerie, atmospheric dive into the occult paranoia that loomed large over the 1970s; a foreshadowing of the Satanic Panic that was unleashed in the 1980s.

The film begins with an introduction (voiced by the excellent Michael Ironside) that introduces the world in which the remainder of the film is set. It’s the 1970s and the world is in chaos. The Summer of Love is no more, the Vietnam War is vehemently opposed in the US, oil prices are through the roof. The Manson Family go on trial for their crimes, and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz is arrested after his reign of terror in NYC. Occult activity is seemingly rife.

Late Night with the Devil

It’s amidst this chaos that radio presenter turned late night talk show host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) hopes to make his mark on the lucrative late night TV scene.

He’s facing an uphill battle, however, because this is the era of the undisputed king of late-night TV, The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson. Jack signs with the UBC network to host Night Owls with Jack Delroy, in direct competition with Carson. Throughout the early 70s he has fair to middling success but takes solace in his loving relationship with his wife, Madeline (Georgina Haig). He also gains entry to The Grove, a shadowy group of elite men in power who indulge in esoteric rituals.

But fate deals Jack a massive blow when Madeline (nicknamed ‘Minnie’) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and subsequently passes away. Amidst a public outpouring of grief, Jack hides himself away only to bravely re-appear on Night Owls sometime later.

Late Night with the Devil

Hopes are high when it comes to Halloween of 1977 which also coincides with sweeps week; the US TV ratings week that determines a show’s standing in the ratings nationally. And thus Night Owls with Jack Delroy is upping the ante with its guest line-up for Halloween Night in the hopes of smashing the ratings ceiling once and for all. It’s this particular episode that forms the basis of the remainder of the film; the footage of which was lost until recently and is combined with footage filmed behind the scenes during ad breaks.

All of this plays out in real time for the viewer.

The evening’s first guest is Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a psychic medium who clearly fishes for false connections before hitting on what appears to be a genuine connection between a deceased boy and his mother and sister.

Late Night with the Devil

But next guest Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) seeks to make Jack and the audience disavow any notion that Christou is the real deal.

Carmichael is a former magician now turned professional skeptic and offers a handsome fee for anyone who can provide irrefutable proof of paranormal phenomena. Christou’s next psychic connection during this time is more pressing and urgent: he seeks to connect a spirit called Minnie with a man who is unmarried but wears a wedding ring. Jack is unnerved by this, as Madeline’s nickname was ‘Minnie’ and the pair were not legally married. Christou is in physical distress by this point, eventually projectile vomiting an inky black fluid and prompting a commercial break. He subsequently requires medical assistance but dies on the way to the hospital.

Late Night with the Devil

Hopes are high for the next two guests, however: parapsychologist Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and her patient and ward, Lilly D’Abo (an exceptional performance from Ingrid Torelli). Lilly was the sole survivor of a Satanic cult that worshipped the demon Abraxas, led by Szandor D’Abo. Lilly was one of the children born into the cult in order to undergo demonic rituals. When the cult is taken siege by the authorities, the cult’s residence is burned to the ground by the members, with only Lilly miraculously surviving. After being transferred into care, Lilly shows signs of eerie mental disturbance.

June is called in and through age regression therapy and hypnosis she uncovers not only Lilly’s experiences in the cult, but that there’s a passenger on board in Lilly’s body: a demonic entity she calls “Mr Wriggles”. June and Lilly are on the show to promote June’s new book, Conversations with the Devil, but Jack thinks it would help with book sales if June could connect with Mr Wriggles live on camera. It’s something she’s vehemently opposed to, but Lilly is completely comfortable with the idea. And that’s when all hell breaks loose… literally.

Late Night with the Devil

I won’t go into further detail about what happens subsequently, because Late Night with the Devil is a film that you don’t just watch… you experience it.

While the film could technically be labelled as a ‘found footage film’, that particular subgenre of horror can be hit and miss in terms of quality, and this film transcends that label. It may be found footage, but because it’s set in a TV studio the effect is intensely claustrophobic and atmospheric.

The Cairnes brothers have well and truly done their homework when it comes to the world of the occult during this time and brought it to the film in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. For instance, the character of Carmichael Haig is very much like the late James Randi, a former magician (who went by the stage name ‘The Amazing Randi’) who co-founded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and who famously appeared on the Johnny Carson show. There’s a clever wink to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey not only in the character of Szandor D’Abo but in the name itself: Szandor was LaVey’s middle name. Nicely played, Colin and Cameron.

Late Night with the Devil

There are also the obvious allusions to The Exorcist; first with Christou’s projectile vomiting, then in Lilly’s demonic possession.

Lilly’s possession is enough to give Reagan’s “your mother sucks cocks in Hell” a run for its money.

But what the Cairnes brothers have done magnificently (and very effectively) is to combine demonic possession with the facilitation of demonic possession via a therapist. This feels like a nod to the incident which was ground zero for the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s: the release of the book Michelle Remembers. The book was based on Dr Larry Pazdar’s memory regression sessions with his patient Michelle (whom he would subsequently marry. Violation of ethics, anyone?). Under hypnotic regression Michelle would disclose details of Satanic ritual abuse, all of which were falsely obtained and never happened.

Just like June goes on Night Owls to promote her book, Padzar and Michelle became the darlings of the talk circuit to promote their damaging screed. Again, well played, Colin and Cameron. The Cairnes brothers proved they had the right stuff with splatter horror comedy 100 Bloody Acres, but Late Night With the Devil proves that they can also write and direct more serious horror and genre fare.

As magnificently detailed as the story is, Late Night with the Devil is made all the more compelling by its performances. David Dastmalchian is captivating in his role as Jack Delroy, deftly able to navigate the very nuanced performance style of late night talk show hosts while also reacting to events gone awry both effectively and (most importantly) believably.

Dastmalchian has crafted his performances diligently as a supporting actor in the past, working with directors like Denis Villenueve, David Lynch, James Gunn and Christopher Nolan and that diligent work has paid off- he absolutely is leading man material. Ingrid Torelli is compelling in her role as Lilly. She slides effortlessly between awkward, innocent cult survivor and being menacingly possessed, channelling a 21st century Linda Blair but with her own distinct take. She is most definitely a star on the rise.

Late Night With the Devil will appeal to lovers of old-school scares like The Exorcist and The Omen, but it’s smart and scary enough to appeal more broadly. It reaffirms how much fun it can be to be scared by a film without the need for excessive violence. There’s gore, but the majority is done with obvious practical effects which actually makes the film even more fun. And the last twenty minutes of the film are eerie nightmare fuel that will actually make the hairs on the back of your head stand on end.

This is one film that is well worth all the effusive praise it has been getting so far, and long may it continue.

Late Night with the Devil
Film details

Year: 2024
Rating: R16
Running Time: 93 MIN
Genre: Horror
Director: Colin Cairnes, Cameron Cairnes
Starring: David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Fayssal Bazzi, Ingrid Torelli,, Rhys Auteri, Georgina Haig, Josh Quong Tart
Production Studio: VicScreen
Distributor: Ahi Films

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