Night Film: Review

Author: Marisha Pessl
Published in 2013
Rating: 8.5/10

I did not expect to be reviewing this book on a horror blog – especially considering Pessl’s first novel reads as a coming-of-age dramedy/mystery. I was a huge fan of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” though it was a bewildering read, and when I saw that Pessl had come out with a new novel after 7 years, I was extremely intrigued. I’m not a big fan of mystery/thriller novels – the masculinity of their prose is usually too much for me – but I had to see what it was all about. I couldn’t have been more surprised, and obsessed.

“Night Film” is centered around the world of Stanislas Cordova, a cult director with the reputation of Lynch, Kubrick and von Trier combined. He’s reclusive, brilliant, and his films are terrifying; shrouded in mystery and rumor. But there’s something strange about him – something dark. Scott McGrath, a journalist whose last attempt at uncovering Cordova’s secret left him disgraced, has never given up on his story; and when Cordova’s daughter is found dead, he has an excuse to pick up the mystery once more. This time, though, the stakes are higher – McGrath might not only lose his job, but his sanity.

It starts off how you’d imagine, with a cynical investigator met with a confounding case. It doesn’t stay typical for long, though. Pessl fabricates a mind-bending reality for Cordova, evoking his films brilliantly, as well as his obsessive and cult-like fans. Add in a few wonderfully painted quirky sidekicks, and you’ve got an intriguing premise. The reader is led through McGrath’s search for answers step by step, uncovering little bits of evidence that range from weird to disturbing. As he hunts for clues with his two assistants, both of whom were connected to the dead daughter, he is drawn into a surreal Lynchian underworld – one that soon becomes deadly, and perhaps even supernatural.

The brilliance of “Night Film” lies not in its story or its writing, but in the little details it brings to life. Pessl fills the book with fake Internet pages from Cordova’s secret fan sight (full of eerie urban legends and creepy pictures), and as the book goes on, with anecdotes from those who were involved with him professionally or intimately. The stories begin to pile up into a horrific painting of an occult family, harboring disturbing and demonic secrets in their Gothic mansion (which plays a big role in the novel as well). The book reads flawlessly like an ultra-long Lynch film, complete with surreal characters and hints at dark magic. As the clues are uncovered and McGrath becomes more paranoid, the novel transforms beautifully from a typical thriller to a bizarre horror-mystery-psychological dissection.

I became obsessed with this novel very quickly, once the real story began to unfold and the horrific elements came into play. The mystery is so complex and unsettling that I found myself looking over my shoulder at the slightest sound. I have rarely been so involved in a book as this one – an apt comparison would be “House of Leaves,” which is undeniably more intelligent, but has the same documentary quality that seeps into your brain and convinces you that what you’re reading is real. I was attached to the characters, fascinated by Pessl’s imagery, and desperate to get to the ending.

There are flaws, of course – the ending being, for a moment, one of them (I won’t give it away, but I do encourage readers to keep faith while reading the conclusion) – but I was able to overlook them due to the intensity and morbid beauty of the tale. It inhabits the world of cult arthouse horror perfectly, and by the end, feels like one of Cordova’s fictional films. If Lynch, Fincher and Argento were to become one person, their first work would be something like this – a colorful, atmospheric, Gothic, and deeply human thriller of epic proportions. It’s not for everyone, surely,  but I recommend it highly – so long as the reader knows they will stay with it through its 600 pages until they have reached the ending.

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