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SXSW 2023: Brooklyn 45, Late Night with the Devil

Some readers out there may know that I consider “The Twilight Zone” the best TV show of all time (it's that or "The Simpsons"). I have written extensively about why the show is still important for The New York Times and even ranked the best episodes for Vulture. So when I say that two of the genre films from this year’s SXSW reminded me of the master Rod Serling, it's meant as a compliment. Ted Geoghegan’s “Brooklyn 45” and Colin Cairnes & Cameron Cairnes “Late Night with the Devil” both have that Serling energy, taking us back in time, locking us in a single set, and unleashing Hell, sometimes quite literally. Both films are ambitious and inventive genre experiments that I suspect will find loyal fans when they escape Texas and wriggle their way around the rest of the movie-going world.

First, I feel a disclaimer is in order. I know Ted Geoghegan and consider him a friend. He wrote a phenomenal piece for this site last year that you really should read so he's also a contributor to this company. And so it’s impossible to disconnect personal feelings from a critical appreciation of his work. He spoke to me before the premiere about how much of his heart he put into this movie, and those of us who know what he’s been through can see that in a way that’s different from the average moviegoer (although I would argue that anyone can sense the passion in Geoghegan’s filmmaking even if they don’t know the details). So my appraisal of “Brooklyn 45” is impossible to completely divorce from how I feel about its filmmaker, a man as equally kind as he is talented.

Having said that, there are things about “Brooklyn 45” that feel intrinsically true, regardless of how I know its writer/director. This is a film that may be set almost eight decades ago, but it’s very clearly a post-pandemic film in my eyes. It features a cast of characters coming together after the traumatic experiences of World War II, but they speak of division, hatred, and distrust of their fellow man in a manner that truly feels like it’s meant to reflect where we are in 2023 too. How do we move on from events that reshape our landscape, both personally and internationally? What morals do we carry through from one major phase to the next? And how do our beliefs about what happens after we die impact our behavior?

That last one is a key question for Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter (the phenomenal Larry Fessenden, who gets one of the best scenes of his career in an emotional monologue early in this one). “Hock” has brought some friends together on a cold December night late in 1945, long enough after the end of the war to be expected to go back to normal life but not long enough to have left its demons behind. Hock is already two bottles of booze in when his friends arrive, in part because he’s an alcoholic but in part because he needs the liquid courage for what he has planned. He wants to conduct a séance to talk to his recently deceased wife, who died by suicide when no one would believe her that the German neighbor down the street was really a Nazi spy. Hock gathers a legendary interrogator named Marla (the excellent Anne Ramsay), her milquetoast partner Bob (Ron E. Rains), a controversial vet named Archie (Jeremy Holm), and Hock's best friend Major Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington). The séance appears to unlock a door to the other side, but “Brooklyn 45” is really more about the demons that people in that room brought in with them than the spirit who is being drawn to them.

There are aspects of “Brooklyn 45” that feel like they might have worked better in an hour-long anthology series form as the script repeats itself with the same argument a few too many times, especially in the final act. However, give me a flawed film that’s willing to be this personal, unexpected, and thematically complex over a more traditional genre piece any day. Despite how well I know Ted, I feel like anyone should be able to appreciate how much his movies push back at genre expectations, and how much he imbues his work with themes and emotions that matter to him. I hope he continues to do so for a long time.

There’s a similar inventiveness to the Cairnes piece, one elevated greatly by a phenomenally committed performance from the great David Dastmalchian. The star plays Jack Delroy, a Johnny Carson wannabe in the ‘70s who has been struggling in the #2 ratings spot for years. It looks like his syndicated talk show “Night Owls” is never going to get the attention he craves so badly that he’s even joined an Illuminati-like group that meets in the woods and does unsettling things in robes. When Halloween 1977 happened to coincide with the start of sweeps, Delroy and the “Night Owls” team decided to put together a spooky show that included a psychic, a skeptic, and a girl who might possibly be possessed by the devil himself. Things got so weird that the tape of that show was buried by history, never seen again … until now.

Other than an intro and an outro, “Late Night with the Devil” employs a very clever real-time, found footage format, unfolding like you’re watching an old episode of ‘70s TV. When Delroy cuts to commercial, the aspect ratio shifts to behind-the-scenes footage for a couple minutes, but the majority of the film looks and sounds like ‘70s late night TV gone very wrong. “Late Night with the Devil” is about, pardon the language, f**cking around finding out. It’s one of those cautionary tales about a man who thinks he can do anything to get what he wants from his career, and he finds out the hard way what the cost of that will be. I wish the directors committed to their vision in a way that was more consistent and have some major issues with the final act that I couldn't really get into without spoiling, but there's still a lot to like here.

One of those things is that David Dastmalchian is again just excellent, really holding the film together as he finds the right tone between smarmy and likable that dominated so much ‘70s culture. As things go wrong, he’s torn between pulling back and pushing through as the ratings rise. The choice of period here is perfect, not just for how it recalls one of the biggest films of this era in “The Exorcist,” but how it feels like the late ‘70s were a time of moral confusion. Things were getting weird. It kind of makes sense that late night entertainment would unlock something malevolent and broadcast it into America’s living rooms. After all, anything is possible during sweeps.   

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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