On the face of it, Night Film has quite a fascinating premise for a crime horror novel. We’re used to film directors creating monsters of all kinds to scare us. But what if the director was the monster instead? It’s an angle not too far removed from reality, after all. Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall on the production of The Shining is one of the more infamous moments in director-to-actor relations. You also only need read up on video nasties like Cannibal Holocaust to see the barbarism filmmakers will resort to for a cheap shock. It’s this blurring of the line between art and depravity that Night Film centers its whole story upon. It gives us a grizzled journalist with inner demons to conquer, a mysterious suicide case to solve, and an elusive cult film-maker notorious for pushing his acting talent to their limits - be they physical, or psychological. It certainly wants to be a cerebral horror, but it falls well short of the mark. Ultimately, the only mental torture on offer is via the chance to witness a great story idea get squandered.
It’s obvious that Night Film was an idea highly thought of by its writer, Marisha Pessl, at the very least. Pessl has dedicated over 600 pages to the deliverance of this piece - an awfully taxing demand considering how the content unfolds. But its length does feel initially inviting, primarily thanks to some strong early chapters. We’re introduced to our main protagonist, former journalistic hotshot Scott McGrath. We also get acquainted with the ominous figure of Stanislas Cordova - the horror film visionary who serves as McGrath’s quasi-nemesis. He’s a man whose legacy flits between genius and notoriety: his later films being so disturbing, that he was forced to produce them underground - making them available to only the few dedicated enough to find the secret screenings set up for them. But crucially, we’re introduced to the link between these two - Ashley Cordova, whom McGrath first sees while jogging in Central Park at night (silently watching him), before he reads about her suicide in the newspaper just days later.
These early chapters whizz by, primarily because of just how many details of intrigue Pessl is flings in without spoiling the snappy prose. Within a few pages, we know of McGrath’s history with Cordova (he was trying to out him as a paedophile before suffering a nervous breakdown on national TV). And we know that Ashley herself had her own dark past - a piano prodigy at 14, before spending time at both a juvenile correction camp and a mental institute. We have characters, we have questions and we have an underlying sense of something disturbing beneath them all. At least in the outset, we have the early makings of a great thriller novel.
Another interesting caveat that Night Film surprises with is its frequent use of other media among all the chapters. Chapter ends will break to full page pictures of newspaper reports on certain characters and events, adding further detail to the increasingly bleak picture McGrath builds around the Cordova family. It’s an interesting tactic, gimmicky as it is, and succeeds at providing some real-world immersion. But the best use of this technique is saved for when McGrath stumbles on the Dark Web hub for Cordova’s underground fanbase (who dub themselves ‘Cordovites’). Screenshots of creepy message boards, and the revelations of obsessive fans detailing black aspects of Cordova’s life only add to the murk, and heighten the expectation of a horrifying payoff for it all down the line. It’s a pity such a payoff never comes - but at least the book’s early efforts live up to the potential of its central idea.
So where does it all go wrong? Well, despite all the early going, none of the characters wind up being all that interesting. Lead character McGrath - who narrates this whole affair - is a fairly uninspired main figure. He’s tough, drinks whiskey, talks about his abs within the first few pages, and loves his little daughter Sam more than anything in the world (or as he saccharinely puts it, “the moon and stars”). He’s supposed to be a hard man with a sensitive soul, but he just winds up dull - a typical rough detective type, but devoid of the good one-liners or a real personality.
For better or worse he winds up adding two coincidental ‘assistants’ along the way - both of whom feel the need to resolve their own personal pasts with Ashley. One is Hopper Cole, a brooding drug dealer who remembers Ashley from his time at the teenage therapy camp they attended together. The other is Nora Halliday - an aspiring actress and part-time hotel clerk, who McGrath pins as the last person to have seen Ashley alive. Nora is the more exuberant of the two, with an offbeat personality that can make her amusing at times. Hopper meanwhile is the kind of surly, temperamental bad boy that belongs in a modern-day Harlequin novel (and yes, Pessl’s prose makes repeated insistence that he’s supposed to be good-looking too). The book makes a great deal of the supposed chemistry between the three of them, but whatever chemistry there is feels trite and forced. McGrath with Hopper feels like the repetition of a female writer trying to understand ‘guy talk’. McGrath with Nora fluctuates from goofy to cringeworthy - they nickname each other ‘Woodward and Bernstein’, which gets pretty irritating, pretty fast. It’s obvious that Pessl really wants the reader to love these three, and make their own stories feel urgent. But any urgency that present, is undone by a far bigger plot crime than any hackneyed character-building - and it comes from McGrath’s investigation itself.
By the far the biggest flaw within Night Film’s long, garrulous yarn is that none of its great revelations come from a moment of guile or cunning on behalf of its lead characters. Most of the secrets revealed about Ashley or her father - the latter’s interactions with his actors, or their reclusive family life at their remote upstate New York mansion, ‘The Peak’ - are exposited through the characters McGrath encounters. There’s no horrific discoveries, or adept deductions made. McGrath simply finds certain people connected to Cordova, meets them, and has them spout for whole chapters at a time. There are a couple of flashpoints of drama that lift the tedium: McGrath and Hopper going undercover at a perverse millionaires’ club, and the mind-bending final discoveries at The Peak, are both vividly written and produce some real edge-of-seat tension. But the rest is dedicated to fleshing out a world that just isn't all that interesting. Nor, critically, that scary. Stanislas Cordova’s films are supposedly these terrifying, life-changing tour de forces, but Pessl’s own descriptions of them fail to eclipse anything that’s out there in the real world. And while the man himself does remain a fascinating enigma to the end (especially if you're a Kubrick / Hitchcock fan), there just isn’t enough to justify wading through six hundred pages to figure him or his daughter out. Especially when the ending itself is likely to leave you just as frustrated as the rest of the book.
All in all, the only thing truly disturbing about Night Film is just how self-indulgent it ends up being. It’s definitely an easy novel to read, and the opening quarter provides an absorbing setup. But like a lot of weird arthouse movies, it’s long, takes forever to explain the obvious and then has the gall to treat your bafflement of it as just ‘not getting it’. Thankfully, you can save yourself the bother and not buy the ticket to the movie in the first place.