We've Seen It All Before

The new thriller "Survive the Night" desperately wants to be a movie and it shows.

Survive the Night
Riley Sager | Hodder & Stoughton | July 2021 | 338 pages

At a certain point in the recent Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor, based loosely on the first 66 pages of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson, the viewer starts to notice that the series is less a coherent story than it is a postmodern mishmash of movie clichés that only pass for a plot because literature is dead, storytelling is a hall of mirrors, and everything is now reference and allusion.

Show creators Lenore Zion and Nick Antosca lard the series with references to Old Hollywood, and I’m not even sure they are all intentional. In scenes invented for the show, the character of Roy Hardaway, an A-list actor, is reimagined as a bad boy rebel with a death wish who drives a sporty little Porsche, while Mary Gray, an actress in a short film, reenacts almost verbatim a story about James Dean yelling at director Nick Ray for stopping a take on Rebel without a Cause when Dean got cut with a knife during a fight scene. The evil witch even references Dean by name. (The novel mentions Dean briefly in passing.) None of it has any relevance to the story, and it’s never clear whether Zion and Antosca were making purposeful allusions or are simply so steeped in the mythology of movies that they unconsciously mistake history for archetypes.

The conflation of Hollywood with life is the subject of the new thriller Survive the Night by Riley Sager, the pen name of former journalist Todd Ritter. The story is a simple one, and it is told with unusual vim and vigor, but it, too, is so steeped in the mythology of movies that it sacrifices its own story on the altar of screenplays, eventually decaying into a celluloid hall of mirrors. It’s a problem I’ve seen in too many modern novels, especially genre novels. Half of them are padded screenplays auditioning to be movies, and the other half have writers who know more about movies than about life and write their stories on cinematic models, following the tropes of Hollywood stories themselves based on books imitating still earlier movies imitating books. It’s all far too removed from life now.

Sager is no stranger to composting old movies into pulp fiction. He is the author of the recent novel The Final Girls, not to be confused with the even more recent novel The Final Girls Support Group, though both novels are nearly identical stories about “final girls” from horror movies banding together when one of their number is murdered.

Survive the Night takes on a slightly different movie trope, about a woman who suspects the man she’s with may be a murderer, on the order of Hitchcock’s Suspicion. But from the beginning, Sager’s vigorous writing can’t quite hide the Hollywood fantasies he’s using to cover the holes in his plot. The story itself is simple for most of the book’s length, or should I say, runtime, given that it’s set up as a script, with each chaptered headed with set directions for a screenplay. Charlie—a girl, despite her masculine name, as the book reminds us repeatedly—is a college student whose best friend has recently been murdered by a local serial killer. She is in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend and decides she needs to leave campus and return to her home in Ohio. It’s 1991, so she has to find a ride by posting a flyer on a campus bulletin board. A handsome young man offers her a ride. She accepts, and most of the book is an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse as Charlie grows suspicious and begins to wonder if she is in a car with the killer.

If that were all there were to the story and it followed through on its promise, it would have been a taught thriller in the manner of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode or one of Boris Karloff’s Thriller episodes. But Sager can’t tell a simple story. He complicates it to paper over Charlie’s manifestly ridiculous behavior, especially as he moves to a conclusion so ridiculous it reads like a high-schooler’s fever dream of bad plotting. He gives Charlie a fanciful mental illness where at convenient points in the story, she slips into full Hollywood cinematic fantasy, disappearing into hallucinations of classic film noir and horror films. Worse, she’s a movie fanatic, so most of the book is filled with references and allusions to what I presume are the author’s favorite midcentury thrillers.

In the last quarter of the book, there is a major twist, which I am honor-bound not to spoil, but which I found so intensely preposterous that it took me out of the story, not least because it rendered the previous three-quarters of the book moot. The law of the conservation of characters from screenwriting applies to this story with an iron grip that is clearly intended to make a cinematic adaptation simple for the inevitable Lifetime movie. I believe there are but eight speaking parts—two leads, two major supporting roles, and four minor supporting roles, one of which has only one line. It will make for a pleasingly cheap movie production.

But that ending … The book culminates in a Grand Guignol of movie clichés, most with clear antecedents in classic thriller films. And then it has the unmitigated gall to end on the very worst possible ending shy of “it was all a dream.” I’ll preface this with a SPOILER ALERT if you plan to read the book. The whole novel is a description of the movie version of the “real” events, which the characters are watching in a theater in 1998. We then get a discussion of what “Hollywood” changed to make a better story.

This postmodern nonsense exists solely to excuse the author’s poor plotting and reliance on cinematic cliché (not to mention deceptive third person omniscient narration that walks right up to the line of lying to the reader about the characters’ internal monologues), to tell the reader that he knows the story to be amateurish, overwrought, and implausible and to wink and say that we should enjoy the mediocrity and recursive ouroboros of a book-movie eating the tail of a book made from movies. It’s the kind of scene that would elicit a groan at the end of a bad direct-to-streaming film. At the end of a thriller novel, it is rather an insult to the reader who just spent hours reading a pointless story that could be—and is—summarized in a page. END OF SPOILERS.

More’s the pity, really, because Sager/Ritter is a strong writer with an energetic style that carries much of the book on the sheer force of the suspense and tension he generates from very little plot. I liked it for the first three-quarters. But Sager’s inability to escape the shackles of cinema makes this less of a book than a fattened screenplay waiting to be optioned.

Sager concludes the book with an indulgence, discussing how the novel’s 1991 setting is a love-letter to his own adolescence, when he was a high school senior. The movies he modeled the book upon get shout-outs, too, thanking the directors he watched as a teenager. It is no wonder that the book reads like an inexperienced teenager’s approximation of life, as mediated through an amalgam of movies. But at least this lets me bring this review full circle, since our culture’s obsession with adolescence is, more or less, James Dean’s fault, having invented the modern teenage movie, and thus the modern teenager, and, eventually, the modern adult nostalgic for adolescence.