Paved with some sort of intention

Follow-up post about Late Night With the Devil, with a few spoiler-filled questions and criticisms

Arial photo of the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, with its large fountain and a lit Christmas tree.

I was content with my take on Late Night With the Devil for a while. I was happy to declare it as a movie that worked on its own terms, even if it didn’t work completely on mine, and I could appreciate it as a lurid haunted house-style throwback. I was even a little proud of myself for watching a movie and for once, not overthinking it.

And then I started overthinking it.

I thought that this was a movie that didn’t feel any need for subtlety. The characters tell you exactly who they are, the performances are broad, the effects are over-the-top, and it was overall intended more to be fun than genuinely scary. (Even I, as one of the biggest scary-movie cowards, never felt my heart rate go up even a tick except for a scene where a man intentionally cuts his hand with a knife). The thing I ended up liking the most about the movie was that it knew what it wanted to be.

But I read a few reviews — a couple from outlets I’d expected to be a lot more cynical and less charitable than my take — that were so effusive that I started to wonder if I’d missed something while being condescending.

The main question I had — and I won’t go into details until after a spoiler warning — was whether the movie was intended to be surprising. And I think it’s kind of interesting, because my initial takeaway was that it didn’t matter.

I’m definitely not a proponent of the whole “death of the author” line of thought. Even if it did have value when it was coined, it has no place now, and it does nothing but promote shallow and overly-literal takes on art. (And occasionally, get used by people who want to use progressive ideas like diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural sensitivity as a bludgeon).

But here, it seemed to me, was the rare case where the intention of the filmmakers didn’t actually matter, since it works fine either way. I thought I understood the story from the opening montage, so I spent the movie enjoying the tension of watching that story play out. That’s the main difference between horror and something like suspense or mystery stories: it’s not about the twists, but about watching the inevitable descent, knowing that you can’t do anything to stop what’s coming.

So I was initially confused that the ending of Late Night With the Devil spent so long belaboring the details that I’d just assumed the audience already knew. Eventually, I figured that it was a case of the movie having it both ways: if the ending surprised you, good. If it just showed you a horrific take on what you already knew had happened, also good.

But it still doesn’t fit with some aspects of the movie that I thought were unclear or just plain didn’t make sense, and for that, I need a spoiler warning.

First off, the “reveal:” as soon as the opening montage mentioned “The Grove,” and then said that Jack’s wife died of cancer, I assumed they’d just told us the back story. Jack got involved with a bunch of super-rich cultists in the woods, and he made a sacrifice in exchange for his show’s success. The only question that had been left open was whether he believed that the ceremony wasn’t real, or whether he really was craven enough to sacrifice his wife for his own gain.

The finale recounts all of this in nightmare form, but I didn’t think it cleared up Jack’s motivation, so it just seemed to be belaboring stuff that we already knew.

But there’s a lot in the story that doesn’t really make sense, and I’m not sure whether they were things that the filmmakers just didn’t care about, or whether there are explanations that I missed.

For starters: it never made sense that the movie takes the form of footage from a live broadcast. The whole formula of a found-footage movie is that we’re seeing stuff that’s been locked away from the public in the years since it was originally recorded. But if everything that went down in Late Night With the Devil had been broadcast live, in the late 1970s, then there’s no reason for the movie to exist. Everyone in the world would have heard of it in the decades since.

The marketing makes a big deal about its being a live broadcast, to suggest that somehow the demon was released into homes all across America, but I didn’t see anything in the movie to support that idea. The skeptic suggests that he’s able to hypnotize people in the audience, so was that supposed to be part of it? Maybe since the climax was so over-the-top and even cheesy with its effects, we’re to assume that the live TV audience thought the whole thing was fake? (I did think that it was a nice touch to have everyone else trying to use the power of the Cross to fight the demon, but the universally-hated skeptic just got on his knees and pledged fealty).

And how was Christou’s whole breakdown supposed to tie into the story? The idea is that the spirit of Jack’s wife Madeleine was so strong that it overwhelmed someone who was psychically sensitive, an idea that’s reinforced by the scene in which her ghost appears behind Jack in a freeze frame. But is she a malevolent spirit? Did she inadvertently infect Christou with her cancer, and that’s what killed him? Does any of this tie into the demon possessing Lilly? Was she trying to get Jack’s secret into the open, or was she just there?

(Another nitpick: the nickname “Minnie” was supposed to be so private that only Jack would know about it. But later on, other characters, especially the producer, casually refer to her as Minnie, repeatedly. Was that just an oversight? Or a suggestion of how close the producers and cast were?)

I’m also confused as to why Jack would book June and Lilly on the show at all, knowing that they had what seemed to be a direct connection to his biggest secret. The ending shows the cult leader as being part of the ritual in the grove; was that just part of the nightmare visions, or was he really there? If it’s the latter, it doesn’t make any sense for Jack to be telling his story on his show. Even if he were sleeping with the guest, and even if he didn’t yet believe that the ritual was real.

One of the effusive reviews I read mentioned that Jack intentionally arranged the guests for a specific purpose:

The film expertly manipulates everything from the awkward interactions between the medium and the studio audience, to the terse standoffs between the skeptic and, well, everyone else on the show, to the moment when it becomes quite clear what Jack is really after, why this particular assemblage of people has been brought together on this night.

But I didn’t see any indication of that, at all. His backstage conversations suggest that he’s surprised they’re getting such a big bump in the ratings, and his onstage demeanor suggests that he’s finding himself increasingly in over his head as his secrets are coming out and he’s discovering that the paranormal is real. Is there an implication that Jack’s goal is to use the night to confess? Or that he planned to release a demon into the homes of all his viewers, as part of his pact?

Overall, I’m just back to being confused about the intent behind the storytelling. Was the finale supposed to be a surprise, or was it just making explicit the details that some of us had guessed from the rest of the movie? (I thought that Mr Wriggles-possessed-Lilly calling Jack out, and especially using Madeleine’s voice, made it explicit and left no room for surprise). Or was there another aspect of the finale that I missed?

I like the idea that there’s ambiguity, but this is an unusual case where more depth would make me like the movie less. It’s the difference between a movie that knows what it wants to be, and one whose reach exceeded its grasp.

One thought on “Paved with some sort of intention”

  1. So I ended up doing something I swore did never do, which is watch “ending EXPLAINED!!!” videos and read threads about the movie on Reddit. None of them had an interpretation that I liked, but they all had enough pieces to put together into what I think is the most plausible interpretation:

    Jack’s feelings of guilt over Madeleine’s death (and presumably his affair with June), combined with desperation over his show’s poor ratings, slowly overtook him over the course of the show. The guests that were supposed to be sensationalist and attention-grabbing started to implicate him more personally, mentioning his wife, threatening to reveal his affair, reminding him of the ritual he’d done at the grove. He hadn’t fully believed in the supernatural aspects of it, but as Carmichael told him, he was easily suggestible.

    After the hypnosis, it all came to a head and he had a psychotic break, killing everyone on stage. It culminated with his stabbing Lilly, at which point he found himself back in reality, on a stage in an empty studio surrounded by everyone he’d murdered. The “it is done” message at the end suggests an attempt at ambiguity: if you don’t accept the supernatural, then it’s just the host of a show killing his guests on live TV. If you do, then the deal he’d made back in the grove had finally been settled: he was now world-famous, and an episode of his show had more viewers than Carson.

    I still don’t think it entirely works (not least because it doesn’t explain how he could’ve burned Carmichael to death), but it does seem to fit most of the points the film keeps banging on repeatedly. And explain how this could’ve been a live broadcast but still been obscure enough that some people had never heard of it.

    I guess I do have to give the movie a little more credit than I did initially. It seemed to be so broad and so insistent on being an over-the-top funhouse that I didn’t see any room for ambiguity, or any way the events could be interpreted as anything other than literal.

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