Marisha Pessl’s ‘Night Film’ and Four Not So Fictional Infamous Directors


In Marisha Pessl’s (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) new novel Night Film, journalist Scott McGrath is investigating the death of a young woman. The police have ruled it a suicide, but McGrath isn’t so sure. As his investigation continues, he begins to suspect the involvement of the woman’s father: Legendary cult horror film director Stanislas Cordova, a an enigmatic recluse who hasn’t been seen in public for over three decades.

Readers will find Night Film to be an immersive, disturbing experience. Those brave enough to follow McGrath even deeper into Cordova’s dark world can download a smart phone app here that will allow them to unlock exclusive bonus content from within the novel.

Cordova, of course, is a fictional character, but the entertainment industry is rife with directors with a dark side. Here are just a few of them. (Note: I have chosen not to embed or link to any of the films mentioned in this post due to their NSFW content, but you can find scenes from many of them online.)

Director: Kenneth Anger
(I)nfamous Works: “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954), “Scorpio Rising” (1964), “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969), “Lucifer Rising” (1972)

A devotee of occultist Aleister Crowley and a friend of the late Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Kenneth Anger’s films of the late fifties through early seventies were dazzlingly surreal, and rife with sexual and occult imagery. When Anger wasn’t working on films, he hung out with rock stars like Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (himself an occultist who was supposed to have scored the soundtrack for “Lucifer Rising”. Anger remains as controversial as he ever was and still has famous friends, among them actor, writer, artist and musician James Franco.

Director: James Franco
(I)nfamous Works: “Love in the Old Days” (2013)

James Franco enjoys a relatively benign public image, but the video he created for his band Daddy’s single, “Love in the Old Days”, is full of dark imagery: Blood, animal masks, fire. It also stars none other than Kenneth Anger. Franco said that the video depicts “The Marriage of Hell”. Lest you think that this is a one-off thing for Franco, he and a handful of friends arranged for one of Crowley’s magic rituals to be performed at Venice, CA art gallery L&M Arts. Apparently, Franco missed his flight and couldn’t be there, but the rest of the acolytes continued without him.

Director: Roman Polanski
(I)nfamous Works: “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Chinatown” (1974)

Roman Polanski produced a string of rightly celebrated films in the sixties and seventies, including the satanic horror film “Rosemary’s Baby” (which featured a cameo by Anton LaVey). He suffered his share of tragedy – His wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child was murdered by members of the Manson Family – but also visited suffering on others: in 1977 43 year-old Polanski was accused of drugging and raping a 13 year-old girl. Rather than face the charges, Polanski fled to the UK and eventually settled in France. He has never denied the accusations and remains wanted in the United States to this day.

Director: John Waters
(I)nfamous Works: “Desperate Living” (1977), “Female Trouble” (1974), “Pink Flamingos” (1972)

Baltimore director John Waters is a bit of a puzzle. He’s a sophisticated and charming man who enjoys creating intentionally “trashy”, violent films. While the majority of his work could be considered “tongue-in-cheek”, Waters affinity for violent criminals (He’s an advocate for the release of Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten and has featured heiress turned bank robber Patricia Hearst in his films) and the depth to which he’s willing to go to make his art (one of his films features drag queen Divine eating real dog feces) isn’t. Waters remains a beloved cult figure in both cinema and in the written world. He has authored several memoirs and is the subject of more than a few books himself.