Colin and Cameron Cairnes (“100 Bloody Acres”) have delivered their third joint horror installment “Late Night with the Devil” to the After Dark Archives of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival. The brothers, a directing duo with a growing cult horror following, came just in time for Halloween season in Chicago — gracing the historic Music Box Theatre with retro and indulgent horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously without becoming excessively satirical.
“Late Night with the Devil” stars David Dastmalchian (“Oppenheimer”) as Jack Delroy, a recently widowed host of the fictional 1970s late-night show “Night Owls with Jack Delroy.” Amid steeply declining viewership, Delroy sets out to exploit the Satanic panic of the ’70s by bringing in theatrical psychic Christou (Fayssal Bazzi, “The Merger”), parapsychologist June (Laura Gordon, “Undertow”) and her patient, Lilly (Ingrid Torelli, “The End”), the sole survivor of a Satan-worshipping church’s mass suicide. June believes Lilly is possessed by a demon and reluctantly brings her on the show to be questioned and observed. Delroy’s master plan to hike up ratings unsurprisingly backfires when the demon makes a terrifying appearance.
The film is presented as a television special intermixed with found footage, consisting of the live taping and the behind-the-scenes footage of the set during commercial breaks. Delroy makes playful eye contact with the audience and pauses frequently for laughs, making for an interactive movie experience unique to the horror genre. “Late Night With the Devil” draws on classic horror, with particular inspiration from “The Exorcist” — and while post-1973 possession films arguably all stand on the shoulders of William Friedkin’s greatest contribution to cinema history, Lilly is a clear nod to Linda Blair’s (“Savage Streets”) iconic, head-turning performance as Regan MacNeil. However, this film can be distinguished from horror classics by its self-deprecating sense of humor. Lilly’s bedeviled behavior is frightening but aware of its ridiculousness. At the same time, the dire circumstances of this fateful night on “Night Owls with Jack Delroy” are not minimized, the Cairnes brothers successfully striking a balance between being funny and being scary.
Dastmalchian has been historically type-cast as a villain: A twisted Mentat in the world of “Dune,” a henchman in “The Dark Knight” — the list goes on. He plays a less obvious antagonist in this film, taking on the role of an arrogant, fame-obsessed late-night host the audience wonders if they should recognize. If “Night Owls with Jack Delroy” existed in 2023, reports of Delroy creating an inhospitable workplace environment would come as no surprise, placing Delroy in the company of James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. With respect to those who may have inspired his performance, Dastmalchian outdoes them in selling himself as a charismatic host. His broad smiles, cheerful personality and feigned humility cloak the darkness that lurks within.
The film remains faithful to its time period, using practical effects that are not nearly as refined as they could have been with CGI. The result is pure nostalgia, reminiscent of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 “House” and Tobe Hooper’s 1982 “Poltergeist,” but falling short of the visual caliber of Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” and John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing.” Special effects of the 20th century might seem cheesy to the point of being distracting in the eyes of a modern film audience member, but it can also be much more interesting. Man-made gore is more tangible and thus paradoxically more realistic to the actors and the audience. “Late Night With the Devil” leans into this, letting the audience find both humor and horror in their practical effects. In one scene, Gus (Rhys Auteri, “A Good Deed”), Delroy’s right hand, imagines ripping his worm-infested, visibly rubber stomach open. The scene is disgusting but also looks noticeably fake, making it all the more tongue-in-cheek and affirming the directing duo’s spot in the cult horror genre.
“Late Night With the Devil” delivers a twist that is predictable and less shocking than perhaps the Cairnes brothers may have intended, but is a worthy effort for its criticism of the effects of fame on even the public figures who seem outwardly most adamant to uphold moral principles. It is possible that they did not set out to write a groundbreaking horror film but to service the cult horror genre by creating something kooky and original in form despite being purposefully imitative. Regardless, the twist will impress those with a limited horror film repertoire and garner respect from genre aficionados. The brothers prove they, as well as the entire horror genre, have a lot left to give. Unlike “Night Owls with Jack Delroy,” ’70s horror is not passé — a “Thank you and goodnight” is yet to be in order.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at email@example.com.