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‘Late Night with the Devil’: Found Footage Done Right

What was supposed to be a triumph is instead about to turn into a nightmare.

Found footage horror done right
Image: IFC Films and Shudder

IFC and Shudder’s new period horror flick proves found footage still has a place in the industry.

Since the day The Blair Witch Project dropped and took the horror world by storm, found footage has been a staple of scary movies. The concept seems simple enough; one only needs to hold up a camera, shake it around, and pretend everything happening in front of them is actually happening.

But the truth is that, historically, the formula has been rather hard to pin down. When movies like Late Night with the Devil come along, they excel not for simply cashing in on a trend. But rather for making creative use of it.

Directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, the movie stars David Dastmalchian as 70s talk show host Jack Delroy. Desperate to propel his career to the top of late night TV, Delroy decides to mark Halloween of 1977 by hosting a girl claimed to be possessed by a demon. Caught on camera, the night’s horrifying events indeed give Jack the notoriety he seeks. But not in the way he intended.

Late Night with the Devil comes after something of a rough spot for horror cinema. Night Swim failed to deliver on its intriguing concept, while Imaginary left horror fanatics imagining a 2024 theatre experience that didn’t annoy or bore us.

Thankfully, the Cairnes brothers delivered just that kind of experience. When the lights in the theatre went down, and the opening “news reel” set an appropriately 70s mood, it was clear the directors hadn’t set out to make just another jump scare fest.

This was found footage done right.

Back in Time

Late Night with the Devil goes to great lengths to immerse audiences in what feels like a historical experience. While us millennial and Gen Z folk grew up watching men like Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson, our parents were around to experience the late night format blossom with hosts like Johnny Carson.

With its painstaking attention to detail, the Cairnes brothers capture that period surprisingly well. The film’s setting is played completely straight, with camerawork, lighting, sound, and costuming all feeling lifted right out of the late 70s.

Certain supporting characters draw inspiration from the annals of TV history as well. Well-known skeptic James Randi inspires “Carmichael the Conjurer”, played to smug perfection by actor Ian Bliss. Others, whether showman psychics or paranormal scholars, come together to complete the entertaining and increasingly grisly show.

The show itself is crafted by the filmmakers to be as authentic, and immersive, as possible. Witty back and forth between host and co-hosts keeps the audience entertained, both in-universe and out. Frequent cuts to said audience keep Jack, and thus the viewer, hopeful that this last shot at stardom will succeed.

Taking us back in time.
Old-fashioned studio charm in ‘Late Night with the Devil’. Photo Credit: IFC Films and Shudder.

Of course, as the opening narration helpfully reminds us, the show won’t go on forever. A slow, creeping unease begins to eat away at the show, both during its live segments and uncovered “archival footage” backstage. What was supposed to be a triumph is instead about to turn into a nightmare.

Old-Fashioned Scares

Late Night with the Devil‘s scares work by falling back on tried and true film tricks.

Its budget of only $8 million does nothing to impede its effectiveness. In fact, like many low-budget classics such as The Evil Dead or Halloween, one could argue its lack of resources encouraged the Cairnes brother’s creative approach.

CGI is absent for the most part, with grisly prosthetics and clever stagecraft sufficing until the shocking climax. A largely-absent soundtrack keeps up the illusion of this all being an authentic, historical event. Jump scares, all too common in modern horror, are few and far between.

All the while, the suspense and fear of just what kind of disaster would kill such a successful show plague the minds of the audience. We wait for the hammer to fall, we know it’s coming even as poor Jack Delroy and his guests don’t.

And fall it does.

Exploit Tragedy, Pay the Price

Like many a great horror story, Late Night with the Devil follows a doomed protagonist. Leading man David Dastmalchian delivers a stirring performance as the struggling host, Jack Delroy. Throughout, he balances both earnestness and an unnerving desperation to stay in the spotlight.

Jack captures the crowd with ease, but visibly forces himself to stay on course now and then. He’s a likable and endearing man, but with a mysterious and vaguely haunting backstory. Even before anything overtly supernatural transpires, viewers have already been taught to question what is going on. We ask ourselves if Jack is really the type to endanger his loyal “Night Owls” with a display of the demonic.

Then along comes his guest, young Lilly. As the dark events of Jack’s last episode play out, the movie starts to hammer home a harsh lesson. That exploiting tragedy and horror for ratings, for fame, will only lead to further horror.

Making the news in the worst of ways.
In ‘Late Night with the Devil’, fame and infamy collide. Photo Credit: IFC Films and Shudder.

And unlike stories that transpire in an immediate, “here and now” format, there’s no hope of avoiding what comes next. The film’s events supposedly took place decades ago, and are set in stone. Whatever new tragedy Jack and his show unleashed, all the viewer can do is watch helplessly.

What To Take Away

When all is said and done, Late Night with the Devil‘s greatest strength as a horror film is its creativity.

While past found footage disappointments like the Paranormal Activity franchise fell into a rut of lazy jump scares, and substituting shaky cam for genuine spectacle, IFC and Shudder’s delightfully wicked spectacle proves there’s more a handheld or first-person perspective can offer.

The movie’s strong box-office opening, and positive reception across the board, speak for themselves. Found footage is here to stay, so long as filmmakers can find new ways to explore it.

Whether it be a trio of explorers lost in the woods, or a convincingly 70s studio under siege from the forces of Hell.

Written By

I'm a lifelong denizen of the Bay Area, with a love for media in all its forms. Books, film, television, comics, they're a part of who I am and I'm happy to review them all for Trill Mag. A graduate of CSUMB, my lifelong passion in reading and writing led me here.

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