The Screen Critic: A brilliant horror tale, a beautiful animated love story, and a disturbing docu-series about a famous children’s TV studio

Apr 12, 2024
Source: David Dastmalchian in Late Night With the Devil (IFC Films); Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black (Focus Features): One of the metallic stars of Robot Dreams (Neon).

We always love it when horror filmmakers come up with novel twists, yet even fans of the genre will be knocked sideways by Late Night With the Devil, one of the most ingenious and innovative spookfests we’ve seen since The Blair Witch Project.

Using the “found footage” format pioneered by Blair Witch, the film presents the unedited master reel of the final episode of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, a struggling 1970s American TV talk show.

The Halloween-themed show begins normally enough, with cheesy jokes, banter with the band, and shots of a laughing audience.

The mood gradually shifts to something more unsettling as a succession of special guests ignite a series of supernatural events. During the ad breaks we see behind-the-scenes footage as the crew try to cope with an increasingly chaotic and bizarre situation.

This remarkable, clever film is the work of Melbourne directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes who have done a flawless job recreating the look, sound and feel of 1970s television, with actor David Dastmalchian totally inhabiting the role of a desperate talk show host.

It’s great stuff and unlike any horror film you’ve seen before.

For a horror treat of a more conventional bent, The First Omen serves up a solid origin story to the original Omen film from 1976. Fresh off the plane from America, Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is eager to impress her superiors with her work in a Vatican City orphanage so she can become a card-carrying nun.

Trouble lurks in the Holy City, however, when she discovers a pretty Unholy conspiracy involving congress between young female brides of Christ and, well, Satan.

What fun, made all the more so with top production values and a deadly serious dramatic tone. Enjoy – and don’t forget your rosary.

In the wonderful non-digital animated feature Robot Dreams a lonely dog living in an alternate version of 1984 New York buys a robot for companionship before reluctantly abandoning it on the sands of Coney Island.

This beautiful French/Spanish film explores the tenderness of friendship, the pain of loss, and the courage to move on in a delicately fashioned story told without dialogue.

It was nominated for an Oscar and must have lost out to The Boy and the Heron by just a few votes. A superb film.

The short, sad life of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse gets a good going over in Back to Black, an affecting biopic that focuses on how alcohol addiction tragically cut short an already brilliant career.

The film keeps the machinations of the music industry largely to one side as it drills into Winehouse’s poor taste in men and inability to recognise her own potential.

Well-done but unavoidably bleak, Back to Black rides on the excellent central performance by Marisa Abela as the troubled and tortured singer. Fans are bound to shed a tear.

And now a quick warning: if you like going to the cinema for the express purpose of getting a headache then Monkey Man will serve you well.

Starring and directed by actor Dev Patel (Lion; Slumdog Millionaire), it’s a jagged, visually ugly, loud, violent film about a man’s blood-soaked quest for revenge.

Unlike other films of this stamp – Dirty Harry; Death Wish – this cacophonous mess is void of humour or style. Steer clear, folks.

In the compelling near-future road film Civil War we travel with a small group of photo-journalists across an America shattered by internal conflict.

Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast as a weary reporter trying to protect her naive young apprentice from unpredictable dangers as they drive to Washington DC, hoping to interview the beleaguered president (Nick Offerman).

Though the film fumbles its finale, it offers a searing vision of what America looks like when its states are no longer united.

The controversial docu-series Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV exposes in frightening detail the abuses that took place during the heyday of Nickelodeon, the only studio to challenge Disney’s dominance of children’s television.

Central to many – though not all – of the misbehaviour is producer and writer Dan Schneider, an obviously talented person who could be an abrasive boss and a creative creep, getting innocent kids to unknowingly perform X-rated visual jokes.

The show caused quite a stir when it aired in the US in March. Many were shocked – including Schneider, whose response to events appear in captions throughout.

In a 17-minute YouTube interview with a former child actor he worked with on iCarly, Schneider addresses many of the issues and allegations, issuing a few denials and many apologies for his conduct.

It’s recommended viewing before watching Quiet on Set, which is out on Binge.

For more visit with updates on X at @jimschembri

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