Review: “Late Night with the Devil” starring David Dastmalchian and Ian Bliss

I recently acquired an Atari 2600 Plus video game console, an updated version of the 1977 original. I collect games via eBay to play on it. The aesthetics of Space Invaders, for example, are straightforward and basic; the console itself is made of black plastic and wood veneer. I like it very much.

My enjoyment partially reflects my nostalgia for the period from whence it came. I particularly like games such as 1978’s “Circus Atari”, whose objective is to bounce clowns off a see saw to pop rows of floating balloons. The balloons themselves are squares, the clowns are pixelated stick figures. This is a far cry from “Grand Theft Auto”.

It’s not just games and consoles; I find that I like the look of cars and clothes of that period more than previously. Even the colour beige seems more attractive than it once was. There is something about the time that was more innocent, more pleasing to the senses than would appear at first glance.

The Seventies were not a simple epoch: Watergate, the Yom Kippur War, and Stagflation are but a few chapters of its troubled history. Our collective faith in institutions took a significant hit from which it has apparently never recovered. However, there was a sense that we had places to look for answers for our pent-up angst. Some people took up radical political causes, others tried communal living. Many people took up new diets, others new excesses. More than a few tried new religions, others dabbled in the occult.

Most people, however, went to work, came home, tried to cope with tough times as best as they could. They turned on their large colour cathode ray tube television sets to get some relief. Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, and others did their utmost to fill the evenings with entertainment. It was a time in which three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) dominated America’s airwaves, and they all had late night programmes which tried to capture people’s attention with varying degrees of success.

The Cairnes brothers, an Australian duo of filmmakers, use precisely this setting to plunge us into horror. It is a rarity: a precisely made, beautifully crafted horror film which perfectly captures the essence of a bygone era.

The Cairnes make use of film clips and narration by Michael Ironside to introduce us to Jack Boyd (David Dastmalchian), a fictional talk show host broadcasting out of New York City. He is a rival to Johnny Carson, then the undisputed king of late night talk shows. Boyd, however, clearly does not carry the same heft of talent. Given this impediment, despite showing early promise, he never quite reaches Carson’s level. The narrator states that even an episode which featured an interview with Boyd’s dying, beloved wife, still placed second to Carson in the ratings.

Boyd’s desperate attempt to revive his flagging career via a Halloween special leads to horror. Boyd invites a psychic named Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), a magician and professional sceptic (Ian Bliss), and a parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) and her young ward Lilly (Ingrid Torelli). Lilly claims she is possessed by a demon. In other words, it is a cauldron of contrasting personalities set to boil over. Almost literally, all hell breaks loose.

One strength of the film lay in its period details: terms such as “Nielsen sweeps” make a reappearance after long being dormant. Wardrobes, equipment, and colour schemes are perfect. The tense and nervy nature of the age and the false bonhomie of showbiz are all evident.

The dominant colour footage arises from the show’s “taping”; backstage shots are filmed in black and white. We not only see the surface gloss but the tension which lay beneath, the backbiting and rough ambition.

Also, the acting is superb. Mark Kermode, the prominent film critic, described the Jack Boyd character as “oleaginous”. This is an apt description; Dastmalchian is in turns sympathetic, grasping, and unlikable. He was able to maintain consistency despite so many changes in register; this is remarkable.

Ian Bliss, the veteran Australian actor, is also excellent as Carmichael Haig. Haig is a fictional representation of James Randi: Randi was a magician who became a full-time debunker of paranormal phenomena. In the Seventies, when charlatans who proffered supernatural experiences abounded, Randi did a public service. In this scenario, Randi’s avatar is both compelling and harmful. He illustrates the hubris of someone too certain of facts. Doubt should both enrich and inform our understanding of the world.

Rhys Auteri, an Australian comedian and actor, deserves special mention for his portrayal of Gus, Boyd’s sidekick. Late night programs relied not just on charismatic hosts, they often required a foil. Auteri’s Gus is believable, self effacing, and shows in the “off camera” scenes that he has an acute and accurate sense of peril.

However, the real breakout star may be the young Australian actress Ingrid Torelli; she portrays Lilly, a survivor of a Satanic cult. Lilly claims to be possessed by a demon whom she calls “Mr. Wriggles”. She is deeply unnerving from the moment she first appears. There is a terrifying aspect about her, perhaps lurking in the contrast between her innocent mien and the evil lurking within her. If this turn does not lead to her getting more prominent roles, it will be a grave disappointment.

If I have one criticism of the film, it is that it carries on long after I would have finished it. The studio descends into chaos after Lilly summons the demon. There is a moment when the screen cuts to a test card reading “Station Difficulties”. I would have left it there. Sometimes the conjurings of the viewer’s imagination are more terrifying than any further narrative. In the brief pause, before the story continued, my mind raced in fifty different directions. The film resumes and carries on a bit longer; the journey to the ending seems too much, though the ending itself is more than adequate.

However, this point seems minor. It is easy to see why this film won plaudits from Stephen King. For those who want a Seventies period piece or just a good scare, I highly recommend this movie.

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