‘Night Film’ explores underworld of horror auteur through murder investigation

The title of “Night Film,” the new novel by Asheville native Marisha Pessl, is a reference to the type of movie the infamous, reclusive (and fictional) Stanislas Cordova produces. His films are so disturbing they haven’t been released in theaters or for home viewing for decades. A cult-like following rallies at underground screenings – literally underground, in the Paris catacombs – to celebrate the horror auteur.

In nearly 600 pages, however, we never meet Cordova. Instead, everything we learn about his life and work appears through the eyes of Scott McGrath, a disgraced journalist. We meet him drunk on Scotch and jogging through Central Park in the middle of the night, fleeing demons that include life after a contentious divorce and a professional fall from grace stemming from his slander of Cordova on live television. During this late-night jog, he comes face to face with a haunting young woman in a red coat.

The book segues into a series of news stories that appear as pages on websites, reporting the death of Ashley Cordova, the filmmaker’s daughter. The apparent cause of death is suicide.

McGrath’s simmering fascination blooms into a consuming obsession. He believes the woman he saw in the park was Ashley and that her death was not suicide. He seeks to find out what actually happened to her in the hope that the investigation will vindicate him.

Pessl artfully propels the narrative forward by gradually expanding our perspective on McGrath’s life as he hunts for clues about the Cordovas. The range of “news stories” McGrath finds is fascinating for anyone who’s a real-life news junkie. But Ashley remains in the shadows – a young piano prodigy who disappeared from the public eye at the height of her acclaim.

McGrath pieces together clues with help from people he meets along the way: Nora, an eccentric, waiflike aspiring actress; Hopper, a troubled drug dealer; and a series of people who have tenuous ties to the filmmaker. His journey takes him from Chinatown tenements to the rocky shores of the Hamptons, elevator shafts to luxury hotels. His quest reaches its climax at Cordova’s estate in upstate New York in a protracted horror-house experience that leaves him dazed and more certain than ever that Cordova had a hand in his daughter’s death.

Only when McGrath meets Cordova’s longtime assistant, Inez Gallo – as mysterious and reclusive as the director himself – does he find meaningful answers.

The momentum dwindles as the story approaches its climax: page after page of McGrath, separated from his co-conspirators, running, hiding, fighting both the elements and a handful of faceless henchmen. The elements that made the exposition so gripping – the news clips intermingled with the more personal narrative touches – almost disappear, and Nora and Hopper’s contributions fade as each moves on.

Pessl’s most amazing feat in “Night Film” is in crafting the Cordova myth. His work is evocative of real-life directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, but with a depth-charge of raw violence. An invitation-only website spills gossip about a man who hasn’t appeared in public for decades; one minor character teaches a college class devoted to the Cordova oeuvre.

As much as Pessl adeptly brings Cordova to life, her dialogue is too glib. The characters’ soliloquies are long and too similar in tone and cadence to resonate effectively. Likewise, the people on the fringes are all overly forthcoming. Few doors slam in McGrath’s face, and the few that do crack open long enough for a well-placed clue or two to lead him to his next destination. The result is a board-game precision that’s a bit too mechanical.

These hiccups aside, the story is notable for its cinematic prose and well-drawn major characters. The “Night Film” world is captivating, a noir tour de force with enough suspense and pop-culture quirkiness to keep it interesting to the end.

Michelle Moriarity Witt is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.