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Review: Satan's in Search of Ratings in 'Late Night with the Devil'

Kurt Loder on

It's hard to do fresh things in horror. What have we not seen? Flesh-rending? Gut-munching? Levitating devil-brats? Next.

One tack to take in the eternal quest for new frights is simply to revisit horror's greatest hits -- the creaking old house, the dark and stormy night, the old buried-alive ploy. Exotic tortures are always welcome, and something Catholic is often helpful, too -- wheel in a coven of mumbling nuns, maybe.

This was the option selected for "Immaculate," a movie produced and virtually willed into being by its star, Sydney Sweeney, an actor who could surely get by on sex appeal alone but clearly has more in mind. In "Immaculate," Sweeney plays Cecilia, an aspiring nun who has come from America to a secluded convent in Italy to take her vows. As we expect, and fervently hope, it's a rather strange place. Most of the nuns already resident seem far older (and creepier) than necessary, as do most of their male counterparts, who have a curious interest in birthing and babies. When these crusty old geezers claim to have determined that the virginal Cecilia is pregnant, the plot is launched.

The movie adds a new wrinkle to the Catholic-horror genre -- what are those unsavory priests up to, anyway? But while the picture's powerful ending is fearlessly over-the-top, the movie as a whole isn't especially scary. Mainly because much of what we see -- the dark stone chambers, the flickering candles -- is a part of the traditional horror-film vocabulary. Nicely done, but nothing new.

This is unlikely to be said about the new Australian film "Late Night with the Devil," which isn't especially scary either. But it's not really trying to be. "Late Night" is a crackling little indie horror that gets over on its wit and invention, and the authenticity with which it renders its period setting. The story begins in New York on the last day of October 1977. Veteran talk-show host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) is in a Manhattan studio preparing his annual Halloween special. He can't possibly imagine how frighteningly different it's going to be this year.

Delroy's show, called "Night Owls," has been popular for years, but it's never beat out talk titan Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in the ratings -- which have been slipping since the mysterious death of Jack's wife some years back. But maybe tonight's special, which is focused on "the occult" -- will bring him back all the way. Mixed into the lineup are an oily psychic called Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) and a skeptical ex-magician named Carmichael (Ian Bliss), who now makes his living busting paranormal frauds like -- if you ask him -- Christou. Delroy's big get for this show, however, is little Lilly D'Abo (Ingrid Torelli), who was raised in a cult and orphaned when all of its other members staged a group suicide. Accompanying Lilly -- and "Mr. Wriggles," the demon that inhabits her -- will be parapsychologist June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), who has written a book about Lilly (and Mr. Wriggles) called "Conversations with the Devil." Do you see where this is going? Jack doesn't.

Writer-directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes have a lot of fun with the '70s (may peached-colored shirts and gold-toned Nehru jackets never make a fashion comeback), and they're especially good with backstage TV details (every time the camera cuts for a commercial break, Jack is attacked by a makeup lady on the prowl for the slightest hint of perspiration). And there are several cutely constructed scenes. (When Jack thanks Lilly for coming on his show, her voice drops an octave and she growls, "So glad you were able to join us.")

 

Dastmalchian -- a classic "who is that guy?" guy -- has been in about half the movies ever made ("The Dark Knight", the "Ant-Man" films, most recently "Oppenheimer"), and here proves himself a master of media smarm. ("In my humble opinion," Jack says, looking deeply into the camera, "there's only one person who really matters in this whole darn crazy business. And that ... is you.")

Jack doesn't know about the big worms on their way to infest his schlubby sidekick, Gus (Rhys Auteri), and he wants as few people as possible to know the terrible price he had to pay to get those once-great ratings all those years ago. He's feeling pretty tenuous at the moment, truth be told. And his grip on reality seems to be slipping. "Where there's smoke," he says, "there's probably a smoke machine."

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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