Review: Late Night With The Devil (2023)

Late Night With The Devil (2023) Late Night With The Devil (2023)

At what point is a B-movie, which references other B-media, itself so trashy that it’s simply, unironically, and bewilderingly bad?

Late Night With The Devil is so diabolically bad on every level and it’s breaking my brain that no-one seems to see that while i can see nothing else.

I have no desire to punch down on a low-budget, independent movie. But my issues with LNWTD have nothing to do with the limitations of its resources, and everything to do with its bankruptcy of televisual literacy and self-awareness. These are both particularly egregious liabilities for a movie which references, and then remixes, so many genres and tropes – each of which it aggressively demonstrates zero understanding, much less any ability to authentically recreate and/or comment on, on all possible levels.

In my years as a University educator, I saw more than my fair share of bad student films. So I know whereof I speak, and not at all lightly, when I proclaim that:

Late Night With The Devil is a bad student film that has somehow gone way too far.

Almost as baffling to me as the fact that this movie even exists, is how its glaring, harrowing vacuity both is absent from the largely fawning conversation, and seems to have escaped the notice of certain reviewers I personally respect, some of whom have taken greater offense at less upsetting cinematic crimes. So, since I’ve not seen this addressed elsewhere, let’s descend, level by level, into each of the film’s storytelling components, to understand exactly why they don’t work, and how they reveal the true horror of LNWTD.

1. Documentary

Let’s begin with a positive. The opening section of LNWTD utilises a brilliant device for a low-budget movie: instead of spreading limited resources over a bunch of half-assed sets, which would cheapen the film overall, the film-makers invest everything in one set (the set of fictional TV talk show ‘Night Owls’, which looks great), and do the rest of the world-building via press photographs and newspaper clippings, which are far easier and cheaper to create, and which result here in some engaging and effective storytelling.

Yet it’s in this first documentary section that the world-building already begins to fail the authenticity sniff test. Even in these opening minutes, we can glimpse the first cracks, the first hints of the limitations of this film – not in its resources, but in its self-awareness. Aesthetically, the photographs don’t look quite right; conceptually, the sheer amount of press coverage of someone we’re told never achieved notoriety or success in his lifetime, seems inordinate and inexplicable. These are only little things, and it’s easy enough to suspend disbelief and be taken along for the storytelling ride anyway. It’s only proven later that these little things aren’t bugs, but features of much larger, deeper problems endemic to this film as a whole.

At this stage, the biggest problem with these uncertainties is that this section also establishes the film’s framing device: that what follows will be found footage (which suggests that what we’re about to see will be ‘real’ on some story level within the film); that there will be two types of footage, the controversial final episode of the ‘Night Owls’ talk show, and behind-the-scenes footage taken during its taping (which suggests that ‘reality’ might be found somewhere between or in combination of the two types of footage); and that the footage will culminate in some mystical / paranormal / occult / horror event (which is only powerful if it upends reality for someone – either for the characters in the film, or for us, the audience).

So, with the baseline from which the film’s ‘reality’ will be built not at all established, LNWTD moves into its next section:

2. Found Footage

On the one hand: most movies since The Blair Witch Project (1999) fail to nail the ‘found footage’ aesthetic convincingly, so it’s unfair to single out LNWTD solely on this criteria. On the other: found footage failure is itself such a trope at this point (it’s been happening since, once again, 1999!), that for a movie to try for it in 2023 is not so much stepping into a creative pothole as it is leaping into a yawning chasm of potential failure. It perhaps even suggests that LNWTD‘s film-makers adopted the idea while ignoring its legacy, and to their own peril – a form of ignorance and illiteracy, both televisual and cultural, which (foreshadowing!) will come up again…

3. Talk Show

The set design of ‘Night Owls’, the talk show in which the main action of LNWTD takes place, is one element in this film that is truly well done. But beyond aesthetics, the talk show itself makes absolutely no sense.

Within the text of the movie, ‘Night Owls’ is compared to ‘The Tonight Show’, and Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) to Johnny Carson – so we are explicitly asked to view this show within that context, at the very least within the film’s reality, and at most within our own. So how do they compare? Indeed, both shows have a host, guests, a live band, and a live audience; beyond that, the comparison quickly falls apart. ‘The Tonight Show’ is an upbeat variety hour, whose guests are mostly A-list celebrities in mainstream entertainment; by comparison, ‘Night Owls’, in the episode we see at least, is a spectacle perhaps closer to, if anything, more politically-charged episodes of ‘The Dick Cavett Show’, featuring D-list personalities, less famous than infamous. Johnny Carson is a comedic entertainer; Jack Delroy is neither funny nor entertaining. All of this makes sense within the story, as we’re told that Delroy and his show fail to even compete with Carson and his.

But the growing question is: does LNWTD see Jack Delroy as off-putting, within its story world? What’s missing, at first subtly then increasingly glaringly, is any indication that the movie we’re watching is better at its job than Jack Delroy is at his, as we get in, say, Boogie Nights or Ed Wood.

There’s mediocrity, and then there’s atrocity. There’s fantasy, and then there’s a lack of internal logic.

In ‘Night Owls’, there are at least a dozen individual moments, either technically perilous or deeply disturbing, that should get this show’s broadcast immediately shut down, right? Yet this never happens… why? Is this a world where stuff like this can just happen? What, then, is ‘normal’ in this world (a pertinent question, given our anticipation of the paranormal to come)? As a host, Delroy regularly breaks character, indulges streams-of-consciousness, apparently improvises monologues with no punchline, and reveals himself not only to not be a showman, but to be a questionable man altogether; yet despite all this, he has a full audience for this… entertainment?

So: even though we’re asked to compare this fictional, chaotic talk show with one from our reality, are we supposed to believe it’s real, or even really entertaining, within the world of LNWTD? If this is never addressed within LNWTD on any level (within the framing device of the documentary, on the set of the talk show or, as we’ll get to shortly, backstage), are we supposed to address it? At what point, or on which level, are we supposed to suspend our disbelief? If the movie needs us to suspend disbelief earlier than we do, then the movie has failed to achieve what it set out to do. If we suspend disbelief before the movie needs us to, then we perhaps miss out on emotional and intellectual engagement that the movie requires of us in order to do its job – which means, again, the film has failed in its own mission.

4. Behind-the-Scenes

Within the text of the film, the behind-the-scenes footage is presented as being shot, in-universe, backstage on the ‘Night Owls’ talk show set. This footage, however, also makes no sense, either aesthetically or conceptually.

Who is shooting and, evidently, editing this behind-the-scenes footage? Is it officially commissioned (perhaps by Jack Delroy, or by the network), or is it independently produced (perhaps by a fan, or as an exposé)? Are its subjects aware that they’re being filmed? The handheld framing suggests that they’re being filmed secretly, at a distance – which necessarily indicates that they’re being filmed by someone – so again, by whom? But more immediately, these elements, these deliberate choices by the film-makers (not of the documentary, but of LNWTD) also suggest that the subjects of the documentary are being filmed without their awareness, and possibly without their consent. If that’s the case: how is it that can we hear everyone so clearly? How have they been mic’d up – again, without being aware, and possibly without consenting? And if they are aware: why aren’t they addressing or even acknowledging the camera? Why are they saying things they clearly don’t want others to hear, much less (presumably) to be caught saying on camera?

Bear in mind: LNWTD is a period piece, set in the 1970s; so the technology for capturing this behind-the-scenes footage is limited to the era; there are no iphones, camcorders, or low-light digital cameras with which things can be captured surreptitiously; cameras, microphones, and lights are clunky, obtrusive, and above all noticeable – not least to those being captured. Even if we, the audience, can ignore or not notice these things, surely the makers of LNWTD, who themselves work with cameras, microphones, and lights, and who have nominated to tell a period story and invest their limited resources in faithfully reproducing the aesthetics of this specific era, must have considered these questions. And for film-makers telling an era-specific story, through a combination of types of audiovisual media, these considerations aren’t solely technical – they’re part of the world-building and intrinsic to the story-telling itself. Yet if these questions have indeed been considered, why do their answers make no apparent technical or story sense?

One answer might be that this ‘documentary’ level isn’t supposed to strictly adhere to the limitations of real-world or period-appropriate documentary production; that the film-makers have intentionally opted for an omniscient perspective, or God’s-eye view, for these sections. However, in a film which traffics in its audience’s literacy of certain specific genres, tropes, and televisual archetypes, this then raises further questions. Why adopt a documentary style at all, if you’re going to arbitrarily ditch any elements of that style which become inconvenient? If you’re simultaneously asking the audience to bring their televisual literacy to their viewing of your work and asking them to suspend it at multiple moments so that you can deliver story information to them, then are you, as a film-maker, displaying less literacy than you demand of your audience? In short: on what level is our disbelief supposed to be suspended?

5. Schlock Horror

Time now for another positive note: Ingrid Torelli‘s performance as the possessed Lilly is fantastically, classically, and iconically creepy, and threatens to elevate LNWTD to a legitimate horror movie, in the most human-made sense (more foreshadowing!).

The horror within the world of LNWTD is supposed to be ‘real’ – that’s the point, is it not, of the entire film? It’s certainly set up thematically: phoney medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) drops his fake accent when his power seemingly becomes real; skeptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) initially presents as there to debunk Christou and Lilly, but his real agenda is to convince Jack to get him an invite to his secret society; June (Laura Gordon) drops her cover about her relationships with both Lilly and Jack when the threat of the titular devil, Mr Wriggles, becomes too real; and there’s the juxtaposition of fake-vs-real in the onstage-vs-backstage, studio-vs-behind-the-scenes footage.

Yet up to the moment when Mr Wriggles first appears (so to speak), ‘reality’ hasn’t been sufficiently established by the film. If ‘Night Owls’ isn’t ‘real’ (that is, if the people within the talk show are simply performing for the TV audience), then why do they behave exactly the same way backstage? If the backstage is ‘real’, why does the way its captured (God’s-eye documentary) not adhere to observable bounds of reality, either within the film world, or within our own? And now: if the horror is ‘real’, and threatens to upend the ‘reality’ of either the ‘Night Owls’ show or of the backstage documentary footage, why does it look so schlocky and B-grade to us? When a possessed character begins projectile-vomiting black gunk in a ’70s TV talk show set, using techniques no more modern or convincing than in The Exorcist (1973), how is an audience supposed to react to seeing it in a movie in 2023? Knowing, as they surely must, that that same iconic scene from The Exorcist has been parodied to death over the half a century since its release, do the film-makers of LNWTD intend for this to be read as homage, or parody? Do they expect their audience to understand, at this point, whether this is homage or parody? These are questions not of resources, but of intent – and they all lead back to questions already asked: on what level are we supposed to suspend our disbelief, and to what effect? What is actually being said in LNWTD that hasn’t been said before, in movies actually made within the time and limitations of the era that this movie has chosen to facsimile? Why this facsimile? What is the statement? And if there isn’t one… why are we continuing to watch?

6. Remix

In a move that would be bold even in a much more literate film, LNWTD then remixes all the elements it has neither successfully portrayed nor visibly understood. This level of audacity requires savviness and a deft hand – and up to this point, LNWTD has demonstrated neither. By this stage, the remaining trace of optimism left in me wonders: perhaps this remix section is where the true art and purpose of the film will be revealed; a postmodern, dadaist statement on… erm… Celebrity? Spectacle? Talk shows? Movies altogether?

Disappointingly, bafflingly, then ultimately terrifyingly, the remix only gives way to more of an abyss of intention and craft.

If the point at which we’re meant to suspend disbelief was unclear leading up to this moment, then that point is smeared and trailed like a boot stain from this moment onward. Once Jack Delroy begins hallucinating, what is the film saying? Which elements of the remix should we connect with emotionally, and which should we consider purely intellectually? Which remix elements are earnest, and which are knowing, winking? Are we supposed to feel for Jack, or laugh at the absurdity? If we’re supposed to feel, what are we supposed to feel? And what is the absurdity: is it within the film, on one or more of its various internally illogical levels; or is it the fact that this film exists, not just as one person’s (or even a writer-director duo’s) fever dream, but the collaboration of several people, with the participation of what felt like eight different production companies, whose idents we view in (presumably unintentionally, but nonetheless, hilariously) interminably drawn-out succession at the start of this film?

The remix itself is a Brechtian gesture, distancing the viewer emotionally from anything within the story world. But a movie intentionally distancing its audience, crucially, should serve a purpose: for example, to invite the audience to reflect, and to question. More broadly: remix is commentary, and usually political. In an age where shooting and remixing video on one’s phone is a common and daily mundanity, a film remix prompts audience participation: it’s a comment contingent upon the audience’s familiarity with the concept, its understanding of the nature of the medium, and its capacity for active engagement with both. Yet LNWTD, once again, displays no understanding of… well, any of this. A movie which ends by going meta, at best offers commentary (see, for example, Blazing Saddles), and at worst is simply a movie without an ending – that is, it fails to deliver what it promises – and at that point: can it even be called a movie?

… and here is where I confess that I didn’t even finish LNWTD. Or, more accurately, and even aptly: the movie stopped itself before it ended. The stream cut out – and I chose to read that as a blessed paranormal intervention, as the levels of my reality crashing in upon eachother, the realest and most authentic part of this entire film-watching experience.

The true horror of Late Night With The Devil is that it was written and directed by AI.

Written and Directed by AI

I’m not referring to the controversy over LNWTD‘s use of AI – although that is, as this section will hopefully demonstrate, perhaps a microcosm of how the ‘little’ things in this movie one might forgive or simply miss, once peeled back, reveal the larger, darker, bleaker implications of the project as a whole. No, I’m referring here to the lack of artistry, craft, commentary, or basic literacy demonstrated on almost any level of LNWTD – and how the resultant film is, chillingly, not substantially or meaningfully different to content generated by, say, ChatGPT.

Consider what constitutes AI-generated ‘art’, at the time of this film’s release, and our response to it. For now, we can recognise, criticise, and dismiss AI ‘art’ in four steps:

  1. at a quick first glance, it looks or sounds like the thing it presents itself as (we recognise the words in AI text as belonging to a language we speak, or the aesthetics in an AI visual as elements we’ve seen before)
  2. upon slightly closer examination, the mistakes become apparent (sentences that don’t say anything, or essays devoid of actual ideas or an argumentative stance; too many fingers, or structures that simply couldn’t function or even exist)
  3. with further analysis, we realise that nothing in this thing we’re presented with is authentic (neither the elements, nor their construction)
  4. and upon further reflection, we understand why it doesn’t ring true: it’s devoid of human thought, because no human mind made it, and therefore it contains no humanity.

Late Night With The Devil presents a host of references to established genres and tropes in a pastiche of recognisable formats – yet it nails no single style expertly enough to make up for the others, and fails either to demonstrate even a basic understanding of what makes any one of them work, or to exhibit anything about them for which it has any actual affection.

“But it’s just a fun B-horror movie”

Here’s a thought experiment. Choose any single level of this supposedly ‘meta’ pastiche of genres and eras: what do you think you are supposed to identify with or invest in emotionally? If, for example, ‘Night Owls’ is supposed to be read as kitschy and fake, and the behind-the-scenes as real by comparison, then what differentiates the two? If the world in which the framing documentary within LNWTD‘s is set, is itself supposed to be read as kitschy and unnatural, then are you supposed to care about anything which happens in that world? Once LNWTD begins remixing itself, which elements are you supposed to care about, and which should you simply dismiss as purely hallucinatory, figurative, or metaphorical? And whether you view LNWTD as reflexively postmodern or simply as a straight horror movie, what exactly is any of this supposed to be a metaphor for, or a comment on?

In photography, a dark image might include hot spots to indicate that it is intentionally underexposed. On a map, a compass or at least a little arrow pointing ‘N’ is usually included to help orientate the traveler using it. LNWTD offers no hot spots, no direction north, to demarcate intention or direction. So if I feel lost when trying to follow a movie which offers no help in me getting my bearings, is that me failing to understand the what the film-makers have created, or the film-makers failing to understand what they’ve created and how what they’ve created might be experienced?

The lack of authenticity, perspective, and/or consistency within the film’s component parts (documentary, found footage, talk show, behind-the-scenes) gives way to a lack of commentary in its juxtaposition of those parts. Who is making this? What is it a commentary on? What is the comment? At what point is the sum total of bad dialogue, schlock, inconsistent internal logic, and the incoherent mashing together of unconvincing genre facsimiles, simply… a bad movie?

On a basic level: if LNWTD is a monkey’s paw horror film then, beyond being unoriginal, it adds nothing new or creative to the traditions it references, and takes far too long to do so. But it purports to exist beyond a basic level – we know it does, because it abandons ‘basic’ the moment it begins to remix itself – so, on that meta level:

the lack of humanity in LNWTD’s film-making is, inadvertently, terrifying. LNWTD is indeed a horror movie, just not at all the horror it thinks it is – and people don’t seem to see the difference.

Why Must I Be So Miserable?

When I first started working on film sets, as one of the lowly production assistants (a fancy title for ‘shit-kickers on productions’), I began to learn: just how many moving parts there are in a film production; how it takes only one dysfunctional part or obstacle to bring down the entire thing; how a movie coming together involves Herculean effort; and that for any movie which results from this process to be good or even great is nothing short of miraculous. The flip side of this, of course, is: that most movies aren’t as good as they could be; that sometimes the reason for this is a single element; and that it’s important to understand this, both as creators and viewers, if we want to better engage with this thing that we love.

I went into LNWTD looking to have a good time, to enjoy the retro schlock pastiche, and particularly to see David Dastmalchian in a lead role. However, the film stopped working for me, quickly and dramatically. Whenever that happens, I try to isolate the one element letting everything else down, both so i can salvage other elements for appreciation and even enjoyment, and also as a helpful reminder of how difficult movies are to make. With LNWTD, however, my attempt to isolate one element quickly revealed itself to be pulling a thread: one element pointed to another, then another, and another; no single questionable element was resolved or even oriented by any reasonable answer from another; until eventually, I realised, I was doing laps of this movie, trying to find any one element which was redeemable, realising i couldn’t, refusing to accept this, and trying again. If I sound unreasonably negative or harsh, please understand: this long-winded mental breakdown I call a ‘review’ is the result of my desperate attempt to find anything redeemable in this movie, and being confronted, time and time again, with only more abyss.

I realise that I am alone with this. I don’t want to be – either alone, or with this. I’m not trying to be an outlier, and I’ve no desire for my take to be hot; nor do I enjoy being so criticial of any movie, particularly a low-budget independent movie, much less one so apparently beloved (including by people with opinions I generally respect). But in looking into this film and searching for meaning, I’ve seen something I can’t now un-see: the true horror of this ‘horror’ movie – that Late Night With The Devil is so soulless, so devoid of humanity, that it can’t even be possessed by a demon or a spirit of any kind.

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