The blurb reveals the basic thrust of the narrative; a story about investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who seeks to discover the reasons behind the recent death of Ashley Cordova, daughter of famed and reclusive cult film director Stanislas Cordova. Assisted by some requisite sidekicks, McGrath journeys down the rabbit hole into the weird, intimidating and terrifying world of the legendary director, in order to make sense of both Ashley’s apparent suicide in an abandoned warehouse in New York, and the truth of her father’s enigmatic existence and career.
Pessl’s story toys with readers, much like a puzzle box – an object that crops up in multiple figurative and metaphorical ways throughout the novel. As much as we try to decipher what the **** is going on with the investigation into Ashley’s death, there is always something else there attempting to trip us up. Reading Pessl’s narrative is a form of game-playing, where we are invited to read between the lines of each element of the story to figure out the truth behind Cordova and his legacy of cinematic terror.
As the mystery of Cordova becomes all-consuming to McGrath, testing his well-being and the lives of those he holds dear (apologies for the clichéd language), the old adage that some mysteries are best left alone becomes increasingly pertinent. In many ways you wish that McGrath and Co. would just forget the entire thing, go get drunk in a bar, and live normal, happy lives without this mad pursuit hanging over them. Of course, that wouldn’t make for thrilling reading, so as our heroes discover more about the case, the more they find out about the bizarre world they are living in.
It is noticeable how Pessl attempts to deliberately confuse her readers, to lead them along dead-ends and provoke potential annoyance at the number of unanswered questions. In doing so however, the novel becomes a testament to the power of paranoia and the fight between reality and fantasy that Pessl’s subject matter considers. One line rather aptly sums this up: “For someone who investigates, you’re blind”. For everything readers may think they see, there are always plenty more things that we fail to.
This world feels fully fleshed out, particularly with the inclusion of urban legend-esque anecdotes relating to Cordova and his fans, the Cordovites, as well as an extensive filmography recorded in fascinating detail. With clearly developed premises and scene-by-scene rundowns for each of the fictional horror films, Pessl’s book is clearly written as both a thrilling novel and a gift to cinéphiles and horror film fanatics. Think of any major horror movies and you are sure to find some oblique or direct reference in Night Film; from hints of The Exorcist to creepy children to disturbing nods to The Vanishing, the tropes of these narratives are used to great effect in this novel.
Pessl masterfully knows how to turn the dial up from eerie to terrifying, despite sometimes trying too hard to pull her readers in multiple directions at once. There are also a few considerably convoluted plot points, and completely confounding moments in the story, which wind up straddling the line between lazy and overly confident storytelling. Nevertheless, once you find yourself delving into the story it is incredibly hard to resist, and the pages turn swiftly as you seek to figure out what/why/and how the hell these things are happening. Full of intrigue, and demanding your curiosity, Night Film is a fun ride to be swept up in. A gloriously entertaining read, Night Film weaves the right amount of suspense, dread and sheer terror to make a convincingly modern horror novel.