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'Night Film' is gothic thriller

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When reclusive director Stanislas Cordova's beautiful 24-year-old daughter Ashley is found dead under mysterious circumstances, grizzled investigative journalist Scott McGrath takes up the case in Marisha Pessl's gothic thriller “Night Film.”

Cordova, modeled on cult filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, is known for horror movies with names like “Thumbscrew” and “At Night All Birds Are Black.” His movies seem to affect people strangely and are rumored to show real violence, and he has been disavowed by mainstream cinema. A group of rabid fans dissect his movies obsessively and show them at secret screenings at night.

As McGrath and two 20-something partners he picks up along the way delve deeper into Ashley's death, they all get sucked into the sinister world of Cordova, which includes a psychiatric ward, black magic and a sprawling, deserted compound in upstate New York known as The Peak.

Pessl, who won critical raves for her 2006 debut novel, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” knows how to keep the creep factor simmering on low while the plot thickens, but, ultimately, she is more interested in storytelling than scares. She interweaves the narrative with visuals such as reprinted websites, photographs, magazine articles and typed-up notes that all deepen the Cordova mystique.

At nearly 600 pages, keeping track of the novel's twists and turns can be exhausting, but “Night Film” is never boring.

And some set pieces are exhilarating, including one near the end when McGrath finds himself stumbling through an endless maze of perfectly preserved Cordova movie sets, increasingly unsure if he is still investigating Cordova's death, or inside a movie himself.

Mae Anderson is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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