Tuesday, May 7, 2024

We'll be right back


Written and directed by Colin Cairnes and Cameron Cairnes

Spoilers: moderate

I'm having a problem, see, with figuring out how to evaluate Late Night With the Devil, whether this third feature from Australian filmmaker siblings Colin and Cameron Cairnes represents inutterable ambition, that unfortunately happens to have been channeled through the serious clumsiness of low-budget just-scraping-by writer-directors, or if it really is just pure desperate bullshitting down to its most fundamental level of conception, so that, with 92 minutes to work with, it occasionally looks inutterably ambitious even though it's just time-filling chaos that didn't even need to make sense to its own creators.  Going by the critical notices, it appears the consensus has tilted towards the former option; but man, when it feels like the latter, you feel it deep down in your bones, and you feel it most keenly of all at the very end, which is of course the worst place any movie could choose to slip face first into its own stage vomit.

Weighing in for "inutterable ambition," however, we do have here some deliciously meticulous formalism going on.  One needs to append some enormous caveats to all of this, especially any use of a term like "meticulous," or, goodness, even "formalism"it'll drive me crazy if I think too much about it, but you honestly could make a case that Late Night With the Devil somehow expends more effort on looking like it's formally rigorous than it would have taken for it to just actually be formally rigorousbut damned if it doesn't achieve its limited goal of mostly looking like a niche passion diligently pursued.  The passion, in this case, is the recreation of the aesthetics and mood of a late-70s/turn-of-the-80s late night talk showthe film takes place in 1977on behalf of what will eventually become a horror scenario operating under the conceit that what we're watching is a newly-discovered recording of a live broadcast of Night Owls With Jack Delroy from that year's Halloween, when some truly gnarly stuff occurred on-air; for the most part, it comes off incredibly persuasively.  That's not just in the texture of its cinematography, either, and maybe that texture isn't even the main thing, but the ways that it replicates how I (kind of) remember old late night could be, something of an affable five-night-a-week grind, usually more likeable than outright funny, though about once per episode, and maybe twice in this particular episode of this fake show, something will come along to punctuate the likeability by actually making you laugh out loud; this is to say, it replicates the half-century-later idea of it pretty exactly, something that's just good enough to watch when you ought to be sleeping, and the entertainment options available to you are almost unimaginably limited.

There's a lot of things to quibble about on this count, even before we get to any of the real film-fracturing problems, though even some of these mere quibbles are more than just medium-sized.  Consider how this episode of Night Owls' line-up is an author of a book you'd have never heard of, a spirit medium, and a magician, which is more like the line-up at a child's birthday party than a Tonight Show.  That, in turn, makes it a little hard to believe that this dude is supposed to be competing with Carson, at times right behind him.  We'll get to it somewhere, but there's a pretty enormous concept-swallowing problem inherent in the film's diffident insistence that a guy who was competitive with Carson could be an obscure pop cultural phenomenon who would need to be unearthed; Late Night With the Devil would probably be better, in several ways, if he weren't competing with Carson, and it was a local show that had practically already vanished even when it was still on the air.

But we'll start quibbling later (because if we start, it'll be hard to stop).  There's a lot of good in this, and that cinematography is still probably the main thing, the Cairnses and DP Matthew Temple pursuing a marvelously successful experiment in recreating long-gone form, with most of the movie (only most, but I said we'd save our quibbles) being in a 1.33:1 broadcast television ratio and somehow taking 4K digital footage from the 2020s and replicating something sufficiently akin to late-70s/turn-of-the-80s videotape that it feels perfectly correct, with the format's idiosyncratic weaknesses (like some wondrously iffy color separation) preserved.  It's even likeor possibly, technically speaking, is more-or-less exactly likeyou took SD footage and upscaled it, rather than either shooting in SD, or shooting in UHD with 70s TV lighting and color grading and a little creative filtering, and calling it a day.  (Likewise, at turns, it can be an astoundingly detailed period recreation: there's a clip the show uses of a reel-to-reel deck that is probably my favorite shot in the whole movie, in how absolutely it captures the way that photographers trained in late-70s/turn-of-the-80s commercial TV would have lit and framed a glamor shot of a highish-tech mechanical object.)

This is, I might agree, an odd thing to fervently desire to replicate, to the extent of making virtually an entire feature film out of it, but the work is terrific; and after all, it's pretty necessary if the film's going to successfully pretend to be a found object from 1977.  It's not flawless in every respect (there's some CGI electrical arcs that look awful, and can't even look "period awful" because you just couldn't do those effects in real-time in 1977for that matter, I wouldn't swear on my soul that dissolve transitions were possible on live TV, but they at least would be sooner than VFXbut, that said, the finale, which involves more video distortion, looks reasonably great; the "final form" design is excellent and the gore effects are invariably good, and given some added creepiness thanks to the more "objective record of events" quality of the video imagery.)  So it's at least competitive with, if other factors mean it's never going to beat, the found footage horror genre's "throwback aesthetic" champion, Apollo 18.  And so is it such a tremendous pity that Temple's cinematography, the directors' own editing, Otello Stolfo's production design*, and Steph Hooke's costume designeven headlining star David Dastmalchian's pretty-darned-70s mieneach doing so much for the film in its pretense of being a 70s talk show in service of its analog horror bona fides, had this grenade of a screenplay thrown into their midst.

And I almost wonder if that's really how it happened, since there's a damnably persistent feeling, starting with the very first seconds Late Night With the Devil, that the Cairnes and their craftspeople spent an inordinate amount of time and energy getting every last one of their ducks in a row regarding how Night Owls was going to look and feel and move, but only with the haziest possible objective ("found footage horror movie about a late night talk show going wrong") on the distant horizon, until production began and they finally had to hammer out that script in all its details right this second, thereby turning to every cheat they possibly could, though, remarkably, the "cheats" aren't the laziest part.  I want to be clear about this, however: good execution or not, this movie rests on a great idea, one of the freshest I've seen in a while.  Stripped down, it's beautifully simple: on October 31st, 1977, our increasingly-has-been talk show host Jack Delroy, alongside his pliant sidekick/band leader Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri), put on their last show, which of late had been getting weird and sensationalthrowing anything at the wall to see what would stick versus Carson.  Tonight Jack gets more than he bargained for, and even his first guest's act, that of the charlatan spirit medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), shades into even darker places than usual.  It would probably freak people out more except Christou's followed by his nemesis, magician and professional debunker Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss), who explains how it's all a bunch of hooey.  The show will be concluded (well, Jack has a musical guest, who, I don't think it's a spoiler, does not get to perform her new hit song) by parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and her ward, the sole survivor of a suicide cult and self-professed host of a demon, Lilly D'Abo (Ingrid Torrelli).  Jack successfully coaxes June into getting Lilly to bring the demon out.  This was a bad move.

That is so simple on paper: "make hour-and-a-half talk show that ends the way it obviously ends, with even the quotidian talk show banter parts rendered increasingly uncanny because you already know you're here to watch hell, quite literally, break loose."  (It does manage a surprise in the end, though it's inevitably negative: I was still quite up on the movie through what I reasonably believed was its finale, whereupon it keeps going for another ten minutes that feel like twentyand that are, notably, not in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.)  It even boasts a semi-plausible structure in its escalation, thanks to Haig's caustic skepticism (Bliss is probably putting on the film's best performance, as a condescending jerk whose abrasiveness is emphasized by a certain clipped, on-camera stiffness that Bliss is calibrating quite well); along with Jack's fame-seeking striving, they jointly serve to keep the increasingly-distressing show going until its foreordained climax.  As far as "inutterable ambition" goes, there's at least one scene that I'm dead certain has to be exactly that, a bit of half-mad genius that was potentially the genesis of everything else here: I wouldn't dare spoil it unredacted, but the scene involving Haig proving the existence of mass hypnosis by way of the film itself lying to us, is something I've never seen in a found footage film, and its swerve into "subjectivity" should not be possible in what is, by basic definition, "objective" cinema.  It's the kind of crazed invention that movies need, and I love it, but it's also the only wild swing, amongst several, that genuinely succeeds: the... whatever you would call it, the "denouement," does a lot of the same kind of thing, without the rationale; and I dare you to not get incredibly bored during it as it senselessly kicks its story around, pretends to be trippy, and ties up its themes into something like a neat bow.  That this movie has "themes" that it desperately needs you to notice ("in their self-centered vainglory, TV stars are practically in league with the devil already, so...") is one of the worst things about it, and it speaks powerfully to where genre filmmaking is these days.  The actual worst thing, though, is the depressingly direct and derivative Exorcist knock-off of Lilly's first demon-possession showcase.  So you see what I mean when I said how difficult it is to pin this movie down to any straightforward qualitative assessment.

Other than the post-finale longeurs, none of this is really the problem.  The problems start immediately, though, with a prologue of unusual girth.  I'd prefer to think this prologue arose out of contempt for its audience, despite that audience being composed almost exclusively of people who intentionally sat down to watch the movie about the fucking haunted talk show.  (My reasoning here goes like this: if it would benefit the dumbest and most ignorant members of its audience, then it wouldn't be completely worthlesseven if they'd have to be real damn ignorant, inasmuch as it sort of treats you like you have to be reminded what "the 1970s" were.)  Yet I fear it wasn't even a notesed-in addition: the Cairnses just wanted to keep an expositional prologue in their back pocket in case they did have need of a brutish way to communicate basic backstory to us, but somehow didn't realize that need never actually materialized.  And, sure: I'm sympathetic to the story problems presented by the fictional 212th (or whatever) episode of a hypothetically long-running TV program; but those story problems could very easily have been story strengths, and an austere "presumed lost for 36 years, this footage surfaced online in 2023" that didn't explicitly explain anything would have been a ton more fun in every respect, forcing you to do the enjoyable work of keeping up without any context, and forcing the Cairnses to have written a screenplay that didn't have so many options to get lazy.  But it's ridiculous how unnecessary it turns out to be anyway: the one thing we learn during this expositional montage** that it turns out is really crucialthat Jack Delroy is a widower, and his beloved wife's cancer death almost derailed his showis in fact communicated during the episode, which airs on, I believe I recall them saying explicitly, the anniversary of his wife's final, sickly appearance on the show.  On top of that, I have no encyclopedic knowledge of the subgenre, but I don't think I've ever seen a found footage horror do it like thisthis prologue is pitched as a documentary and the movie never really acts like a documentary againand most of them get through the truly necessary stuff in, like, a couple of title cards.

So ultimately even my more cynical suppositions may be giving more credit than it deserves: I think there's the petrifying possibility that this prologue really only exists to be very long, because the Cairnses realized their screenplay only has the juice for about 60 minutes.  The prologue runs about nine, meaning that about 10% of Late Night With the Devil's 92 minute runtime is devoted to it; they make up the other 23 or so with the eyebrow-raising conceit of "behind-the-scenes footage"from not one but two shoulder-mounted cameras!for, mind you, a sagging nightly talk show in 1977.  That's pretty insane, and again I can see the temptation, but just like with the prologue, they're terrible and useless: they do nothing for the story, really, and instead only do damage to the "lost media" pleasures of the film; they seem to exist mainly to make sure you get that this movie has "themes" and "characters" when neither are desirable; in fact, because they won't shut up about "ratings" and "Carson" they serve as a hugely unwanted reminder of the concept's major weakness, which is that this forgotten footnote to television history, where a raft of people got murdered on air by the provably supernatural, was witnessed by millions of American households, and accordingly would be, as they say, at least as famous as the moon landings.  But they do add runtime, just like the prologue adds runtime, just like the "denouement" adds runtime.  (Hence that "best shot in the film" with the reel-to-reel also drives me nuts: if you want formal rigor, and I think we should all want that, then things like The Star Wars Holiday Special and other lost media that have seeped up through the cracks of the Internet point in the right direction; if runtime was a problem, wouldn't the loveliest and most elegant solution have been if they'd simply pretended harder, and done up some "real" "vintage" commercials?)  That's a lot of problems to have, but the core novelty is so strong that it took Late Night With the Devil throwing its formal conceit directly into the trash for ten minutes at the end, and deciding that what it was doing was art and not the opposite of art, to actually kill itand I'm still not certain it's totally dead.

Score: 5.01/10

*The film has a scandal attached thanks to its use of a teensy bit of a AI-generated art, and as someone whose livelihood has been eaten away by machine learning for several years now, I am happy to agree this is bad and should be frowned upon, pragmatically-speaking, though this about as de minimis a usage as one will find.  It's probably best to consider it as just another way the film is paradoxically very careful in some ways and very slapdash in others.
**Which itself feels like it's been narrated less by Michael Ironside and more by an AI-generated Stacy Keach trained exclusively on those 30 Rock Kouch Town commercials; it's obviously extremely distracting.


  1. I know this rationalization will sound ridiculous compared to all the other conceits involved with this movie, but a small local talk show from the 70s would likely have been done entirely live and not taped at all. ...Ok I'm just now realizing that that simply would've made it all the more plausible how such footage could be lost for so long, if it theoretically shouldn't have existed and all.

    1. It could be a home recording, though there weren't many American homes with video recorders by 1977.

      Having had a night to think about it, I'm increasingly of the opinion that demanding you recognize it as in-universe "found footage" (and all the folderol that permitted) is the film's key error. It would almost undoubtedly play better if the Cairnses had treated it as a notional "contemporary broadcast," where you agree to pretend you're watching it air yourself in 1977. And I said they could mock up "commercials," but honestly, you don't even have to mock them up.

      I've said elsewhere I'd be really interested in an edit that uses only the 1.33:1 footage and maybe splices in some material from a 1977 TV ad compilation.