I’m not saying that movies centered on couples in rocky relationships trapped in hotels under ominous circumstances always work, I’m just saying they always work...
...It’s a juicy premise to play with. Plenty of interpersonal friction to exploit, exacerbated by a hotel’s unique ability to foster the diametrically opposed experiences of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Hallways that are too long. Rooms that are too small. It’s a gold mine, and it’s one that writer Milad Jarmooz and co-writer/director Kourosh Ahari attempt to excavate in their upcoming film The Night.
The Night starts out in an affluent suburban SoCal home with husband and wife Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) and their infant daughter visiting with a group of friends. Party games and a barbecue serve as an apéretif to some strong drinks for Babak, and when it comes time to leave it’s clear to Neda he’s had a bit too much. After refusing to allow her to drive and a rogue GPS pulling Babak’s boozy focus, Neda insists that the family find a hotel to spend the night.
Enter the Hotel Normandie. The type of LA relic you might expect to see in a modern period piece set in Hollywood or a season of American Horror Story. It oozes a nicotine-stained charm, the kind that’d have you just as likely to believe that the penthouse suite housed golden-age movie stars as you would that it was the scene of a triple murder-suicide.
The chef’s kiss comes in the form of the ever-necessary kooky concierge, played to the nines by inimitable character actor George Maguire. And what’s a possibly haunted hotel story without a man experiencing homelessness (Elester Latham) standing outside of the building whispering indiscernible words?
Things take a hard left when both Babak and Neda begin to have phantasmal experiences. Footsteps echoing in the hallway, thumping and pacing from above, a child calling for his mother outside the door, and ghosts filing their nails.
Though outside forces work as moving pieces to drive Babak and Neda through the events of The Night, it’s their relationship and parenthood that form the crux of the film’s soul. A period of separation during which Neda remained in Iran and the strain and anxieties of parenthood set the stage for much of the tension between the two. It’s therein that the forces at work play. Doubt and mistrust, of each other and of themselves and their own senses push the pair to their breaking point.
The aforementioned are useful conceits, paired with impeccable atmosphere to create what I’ve come to think of as David Lynch’s The Shining. All of the Lynchian cerebral elements, without an ounce of hand holding. Some of the puzzle pieces come together succinctly while others remain a bit amorphous and make for some of the film’s less satisfying moments.
Speaking of impeccable atmosphere, cinematographer Maz Makhani conducts wonders with a rich use of color and oily shadows while composer Nima Fakhrara delivers a pitch perfect if minimalistic score. Fakhrara set the bar high with the eerie hymnal intonations played over an ethereal whine during the opening credits. It gave me goosebumps on par with those I erupted into during my first blind theatrical viewing of The Conjuring and that deeply unnerving brass bleat that sounds over the Warner Bros. logo.
It’s also always refreshing to have horror from a (mostly) non-American, non-white perspective. The complexity of being a couple is made even more complex by the struggles of having to emigrate to America under a particularly heinous American political regime, especially where immigrants are concerned. It created a unique opportunity for storytelling and for audiences to gain some perspective. Besides the film being done mostly in Farsi, it is also the first film produced in the U.S. in nearly five decades to be approved for distribution in Iran. Iran has strict policy when it comes to films and requires approval of the script before production begins. Luckily, Ahari was able to secure the approval just before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran.
While ending a film like The Night can be tricky, Ahari and co. pull out just enough stops to make it work. Anchored by Noor’s incredible performance and Hosseini’s beleaguered horror and confusion, The Night gives an old trope a new skin—namely, yours.
The Night comes to select theaters, Digital and VOD January 29th from IFC Midnight.
By Paul Bauer