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‘Night Film’ is a tiring yet mesmerizing read

bookI did not like this book. My first response on finishing it was that I would not review it, but there is a paradox here. The author has an enviable and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of film, and this book is freighted with a wealth of film myth and legend. 


In addition, the Asheville-born Marisha Pessl demonstrates a gift for crafting startling images and the narrative of Night Film contains some of the most original and suspenseful writing that I have read in recent years. There are some impressive techniques, such as mixing graphic imagery and photography. In addition to descriptive details, Pessl adds items such as brochures, post cards, maps and memorabilia in an attempt to add verisimilitude to the lives of her characters. What then? What, in my opinion, is wrong with Night Film? 

I have to admit that the story is, at times, mesmerizing. Consider the basic premise. A legendary director named Stanislas Cordova created a series of 15 films which were actually banned from theaters. However, Cordova’s devoted fans began bootlegging them. Audiences gathered in unorthodox settings (graveyards and the catacombs in Paris) to see horror films with provocative titles like “Thumbscrew,” “Wait for Me Here” and “Somewhere in an Empty Room.” Disturbing stories began to circulate about Cordova’s private life, and ranged from the theory that he did not exist (he has not been seen in public in over 30 years) to the belief that he is a permanent resident of a mental institution.

Much of this reminds me of the sensationalized life of Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker. Indeed, much of Argento’s life and work resembles Cordova’s, and the antics of his daughter, Asia, are dutifully reported by the press each week. Also, much of Dario’s work (horror) resembles a typical Cordoba thriller.

The protagonist of Night Film is Scott McGrath, a private investigator (who talks like a Sam Spade wannabe) whose obsession with Cordova has cost him his reputation and his marriage. Unable to prove his allegations that Cordova is not only insane, but has destroyed countless lives, McGrath is hit by a lawsuit from the Cordova estate. The lawsuit destroys McGrath’s credibility, but he continues to investigate stories about the director’s involvement in satanic rituals and black magic. When the body of Cordova’s brilliant daughter Ashley is discovered in an abandoned building, McGrath is convinced that she has been murdered or driven to suicide and launches a revenge-motivated search for proof. 

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His quest will take him to remote islands, abandoned sound stages, old estates that are now rumored to be the sites for strange rituals and occult activities, locales in foreign countries (Chile) and New York hotels where aging, alcoholic actresses spend their days staring out the window. Along the way, there are repeated visits to a witch’s store managed by a real witch who is adept at recognizing curses (McGrath has one) and concocting defenses which may contain exotic ingredients (bat dung and ginseng). 

It is an epic journey, but before McGrath reaches the end of his quest, you, the reader, may no longer care ... or to be more precise, the reader may be a-weary of McGrath’s cynicism and the novel’s atmosphere of the endless paranoia and tension in which each discovery merely sets the stage for yet another mystery.

Along the way, the hard-boiled McGrath picks up two assistants: a young drug addict named Hopper, who seems to know more than he should about Ashley (He once attended a nightmarish summer camp with her) and Nora, a research assistant who ends up living with McGrath. McGrath has an 8-year-old daughter of his own, and as his search for Cordova becomes more daunting, the safety of his daughter is (or seems to be) threatened.

Some episodes become over-the-top surreal. For example, the one in which McGrath finds himself at a crossroads, much like the one where Robert Johnson, the blues musician, made a pact with the devil. There is a story that children are sacrificed at the crossroads and a field full of children’s clothes suggests that “something happened here.” McGraph unearths bones and finds blood-stained clothing, all of which is meaningless. The blood is food coloring and the bones are from animals. At one point, our fearless investigator finds himself on an abandoned set for one of Cordova’s films, yet this is an elaborate hoax complete with a lake, cabins, dressing rooms and costumes. There is no corpse, no hatchet-welding madman. There is only a trapdoor and a tunnel, and at the end, another trapdoor.

Throughout Night Film, McGraph senses that he is being watched and that somewhere, Cordova and/or his agents are mocking him. Before the reader reaches the end of this novel, he/she may have the same feeling. Despite Pessl’s heartfelt description of Ashley, who visits an obscure music store to play/perform on the piano, and yes, leave yet another clue; yes, despite the image of a lonely, doomed young woman, well, enough is enough. I am tired of gritting my teeth and looking over my shoulder.

I grew tired of creeping along dark corridors or groping my way through yet another tunnel that is growing ... too narrow as I followed the stalwart McGrath past constricting walls to find yet another trap-door. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I no longer care.

We are left with a dozen questions. What became of Cordova’s son, who lost two fingers in a bizarre accident during the filming of a Cordova classic? Why did Cordova’s wife commit suicide, or did she? And then there is the question that continues to be asked. Does Cordova even exist? Marisha Pessl assures us that he is real. In fact, if you go to YouTube and search “Night Film Found Footage,” you will be greeted with one of those surveillance films that that shows people going and coming on a street, and, wait, look! Yes, there he is! The man with the hat on that pauses on the curb and then slips away into the shadows ...

Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Random House, 2013. 599 pages.

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