Cult Film Killer.
In the world of Night Film, there’s a whole new level to the definition of cult movie. Stanislas Cordova was once a celebrated filmmaker, but as his material darkened and his reputation grew, he retreated underground. These days, the only way to see his movies are at secret engagements, screenings held in tunnels and available only to the truly devoted. Cordova the man is second only to Cordova the myth, and rumor states that the horrors in his movies are equivalent to the horrors he commits in real life. Nobody believes this so steadfastly as disgraced reporter Scott McGrath, who once dug too deep into the director’s past and found his professional reputation and personal life shattered as a result.
But now, with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s talented young daughter Ashley, Scott may be able to finally crack the story that defeated him. Solve the mystery of Ashley’s final days, and he just might decipher the enigma that is her father, as well. As Scott hits the pavement in search of clues, he allies himself with once-juvenile delinquent Hopper and the old-beyond-her-years Nora, both of whom want answers for reasons of their own.
Scott, Nora, Hopper, Ashley, and Cordova. This is the order, from lowest to highest, in which you will likely find the characters of interest. It’s obviously a problem when our hero and narrator is the least interesting character in his own story, but characterization doesn’t seem to be the author’s strong point here. Her strength lies in the myth that she weaves so intricately—which is precisely why the most interesting characters are the ones we spend the least amount of time with, the very ones who are enshrouded in mystery.
This is Marisha Pessl’s second novel (following Special Topics in Calamity Physics) but it feels like she’s been cranking them out for decades. Night Film is a fast-paced adventure into shadowy underworlds both real and imaginary (and, sometimes, where the two intersect)—only slowing and feeling bogged down briefly near the climax. She expertly navigates through the dark alleys of neo-noir, mystery-thriller, and good old fashion horror, allowing the reader and the characters a glimpse of what it would be like to live inside of one of Cordova’s films. Because that’s precisely what this is: one of Cordova’s night films, sans camera. It’s got his fingerprints all over it.
The mystery that Pessl lays out here is wide and deep, a genius-level jigsaw puzzle where the clues can be interpreted in various ways, the larger picture depicting a different scene according to how you assemble the pieces. Are there supernatural elements at play here, or merely delusion and silly superstition? That’s just one of the countless layers to this mystery that demands you make a conscious effort to solve it. You’re playing detective just as much as any of the characters are, gladly following the clues as they lead you deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Structurally speaking, there are two elements here that stretch the boundaries of the traditional novel. The narrative is interspersed with clippings from news articles and screenshots from webpages that our protagonists unearth and utilize over the course of their investigation. Readers shouldn’t find these too jarring—illustrated novels have existed since time immemorial. However, these illustrations shouldn’t be skipped over or merely glanced at, as they actually contain important aspects of the narrative.
More extremely, the book also contains a genuine multimedia experience encoded in its pages, requiring a smartphone or tablet to unlock. By downloading the “Night Film Decoder” app and focusing your device’s camera on specific images throughout the book, you gain access to additional material.
Whether this is pure gimmick or a step into the future of literature is up to the reader to decide. Regardless of the answer, keep this in mind: William Castle did not reinvent cinema, but his films are still a hell of a lot more watchable than many of those who tried.
Night Film begs you to get lost in the empty spaces of its margins, again and again and again.