Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night filmNIGHT FILM.
The first instalment in my October horror show!

The title. The cover. The description. All the markings of a hauntingly perfect novel. But those are often the ones you need to watch out for. The ones that get you TOO excited, because there is almost nothing worse than a story not living up to your inflated expectation. When the idea of it, the kernel of possibility sets a story on fire before you’ve even cracked the spine a little.

Night Film follows a disgraced journalist named Scott McGrath along a consuming and spiralling investigation that begins with a young woman’s sudden death. The woman happens to be the daughter of an infamous horror film director named Stanislas Cordova, known as much for his disturbing films as his reclusive persona. Scott, convinced on an anonymous tip and a strong hunch that Ashley’s death is a direct link to her secretive family heritage, decides to go on the hunt for answers about the obscure Cordovas and in doing so plunges himself in plaguing suspicion.

Night Film delivers on the possibility, the wild goose chase…reaching out for those shiny serpentine strings, and having your imagination fill in the blanks.

As much as the story follows a pretty straightforward breadcrumb trail, the array of characters found in Night Film are extremely interesting – from an aging Hollywood beauty, a witchcraft practitioner, a flamboyant film professor, a pervy goon…However, Pessl’s character Stanislas Cordova is the real heart of this story. His intricate body of work, the secret sprawling manor he lives in, his cult-like following and the whole underground culture it spawns was spellbinding and oozes mystique to the very end. Pessl manages to weave Cordovas pop-history into his storyline, making it feel all the more real, details that include a no-show at the Academy Awards in 1977, a Rolling Stone cover story and a Times piece. Peppered with actual photographs and media clippings, from blogs to newspaper articles and Vanity Fair spreads, Cordova feels like a real-deal celebrity.

Though I had to actively ignore the author’s obsessive use of italics all over the place, the narrative was both reflective and descriptive, tugging at insights concerning fears, truth, suspicion, faith and skepticism.

Though the suggestion and mystery of Cordova is far more fearsome than the actual story (check out these “real” film posters from the author!), the novel is entertaining as hell, and a beautiful object to behold. Though the final revelation might seem lacklustre in comparison to the build-up, I think it was actually suiting to the themes that are tossed around throughout the novel. Night Film delivers on the possibility, the wild goose chase, reaching out for those shiny serpentine strings, letting them take you places and having your imagination fill in the blanks. And even though you want to believe in the possibility of something grander, something extraordinary, the novel brings you gently back down to reality. Disappointing? Not exactly. It’s the trajectory of letting you discover, dig up and run away with a story that makes it exciting. We, like McGrath are strangers in the dark, following a thread of possibility, and it is, like the novel suggests, a human condition to let your imagination wander. To search for mermaids, even though in the end, after you’ve got nothing but a trout in your hands, you realize it was in the journey that the magic really lived and believing was (almost) more satisfying than finding the answer.

Would this not make an astounding movie?

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