Wed, April 24, 2024

‘Late Night with the Devil’ brings us analog, anxiety, and A.I.

The new supernatural horror film “Late Night with the Devil” is a potential sleeper this spring, offering a dark, gore-y satire on the pitfalls of attaining fame.

The film’s prologue takes us to 1977, when financial woes, political tensions, and cult frenzy seemed to fill the air – or at least the airwaves. We are introduced to a tape of the fictional late-night talk show Night Owls, hosted by Jack Delroy (played by David Dastmalchian). Jack has struggled over the years to compete with the ratings of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on NBC. Despite numerous attempts to sensationalize the show, he always finds himself second at best. Along the way, he has mysterious dealings at a secret club in rural California known as “The Grove”, where stars, politicians, and businessmen congregate for uncertain reasons.

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The year before the events of the film, Jack’s wife, Madeleine, died of lung cancer, leaving him absent from the show for several months. Back in the saddle and facing Sweeps Week, Delroy and his eccentric producer Leo Fiske have chosen to do the unprecedented: a Halloween show with a theme of communicating with the undead. The guest list includes a medium under the name Christou, a skeptic named Carmichael the Conjurer, and June Ross-Mitchell, a parapsychologist and author of a book about a cult. Ross-Mitchell, at the behest of Jack, has brought with her a young girl named Lilly, who survived a mass suicide at the “Abraxas” satanic cult and has a connection with a demon.

As each guest takes the stage, stranger phenomena occur in the studio. Christou is overwhelmed by a force with the name “Minnie.” Carmichael laughs at Christou’s “theatrics” as the latter is removed from the show after becoming violently ill. Ultimately, Jack asks a resistant June to surface the demon in Lilly, whom the young girl calls “Mr. Wriggles” on account of his wriggling his way in and out of her head. When the demon is summoned, it recognizes Jack. Everyone in the studio is subjected to the supernatural horrors then unleashed, but is it infiltration or hypnosis? Check the tape.

The film succeeds in taking the familiar presentation of found-footage horror (in this case, a fusion of the TV broadcast “tape” and film footage) and injecting it with an intriguing premise. Along with it, the aesthetics are effectively unnerving. Each jitter of the simulated analog camera footage does prevent a heartbeat. The production design is remarkable and truly emulates the stock 1970’s talk show setting, all the way down to the burnt-orange carpet, wood paneling, and bandstand. Nerds who love old TV (a group in which yours truly is an admitted member) will appreciate these visual details along with some references in the story to real-life Television history (the true story of a death on the Dick Cavett Show and Johnny Carson’s skepticism of paranormal psychology and mediums, plus Carson’s association with the “Amazing Randi”, a skeptic in which the Carmichael character is practically based on, immediately come to mind). The film lambasts the depths to which a single person may go to acquire fame, leaving the protagonist to reckon with his malefaction.

Where the film falls short is providing a consistent cinematic technique. The presentation of this tape and accompanying black and white camera footage as a documentary drops dead when the film ends. Instead, the movie relies on a fantasy sequence of scares to illustrate Jack’s psyche. It is a bit of a deviation from the found-footage subgenre that may leave the audience stirred but somewhat unfulfilled. Some of the visual effects are, though excusably, silly. Despite this, it is an engaging thrill that keeps the anxious viewer twitching their toes.

No analysis of “Late Night with the Devil” is complete without commentary on the buzz surrounding its release, which is the use of A.I. imagery in a trio of “more to come” stills in the context of the television show. Variety magazine confirmed that co-writers and directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes used three A.I. images “in conjunction” with the graphics team for the film. The Cairnes also made a point of lauding the people involved in making the movie.

Were the images generated as a cheap effect to help further unsettle audiences, or were the filmmakers not willing to pay artists to make a fake TV bumper? It is unclear. Some have encouraged boycotts of the film. I will not join that list, as the work of the scores of craftspeople whose efforts helped make the film shouldn’t be hidden as a rejection of one uncreative act. Instead, I will opine that the press coverage is a healthy dose of reality for these filmmakers and any other that would seek to use A.I. in any creative capacity in films. That reality? That the conversation surrounding the film has been permeated because of this decision. Rather than discuss the merits of the film’s substance, it has instead ignited concerns for the survival of below-the-line creative occupations. It is a discourse that NO filmmaker should ever want to have associated with their product. The admonishment is fair: this should not happen again.

Though “Late Night with the Devil” may not creep you out of turning on your own TV when returning home, it is a playful, surrealistic ride with electric vibes, enveloping setting, and decent scares.

“Late Night with the Devil” is a product of Image Nation and Spooky Pictures, distributed by IFC Films and Shudder. It is currently playing at the Augusta Regal Exchange.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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