When COVID-19 is gone, or when nations’ leaders say “COVID-19 is gone” and the people’s bollocks detector doesn’t go off, and the first thing you’re doing is traveling, make sure you have packed the essentials and spilled all the secrets. Seriously, let the other half know the potentially troubling things from the past that are still troubling you today before the first night at your hotel of choice. We all prefer our survival odds to be high, correct?
In The Night (Aan Shab), Los Angeles-based Iranian couple Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Jafarian), parents to the 1-year-old Shabnam (Leah Oganyan), continue to hide their own grey cloud from each other. It will cost them a lot of strength and sanity when they drive home from a friend’s dinner; the initial warning sign being the first showcase of composer Nima Fakhrara’s majorly unsettling score. It’s late for the baby. Neda is again close to the alcohol-laced version of her husband. Babak can’t get the GPS to function.
The mountain of issues lead to everyone spending the night at (the very real) Hotel Normandie, a fancy-ish establishment with a receptionist (George Maguire) who would say “have a good night” in the same tone as “hope you don’t die,” a painting of a man looking into the mirror but the reflection is looking away from him (the film’s poster), and — most importantly — many personal nightmares that will keep all exits locked until deepest-buried sins are said out loud.
One finds it tough to beat the stay at either 1408’s The Dolphin or The Innkeepers’ Yankee Peddler Inn — both well-built contemporary horror houses — but that was prior to The Night presenting its Normandie. Wisdom accompanies director Kourosh Ahari, who also co-writes and edits the film, as many frames — and namely those that quicken the pulse, and there are plenty of them — are permeated with the effective combination of simplicity and patience. And seeing how there is zero in-world preface that Hotel Normandie has paranormal problems before the family enters it, fear and disorientation can manifest and amplify in an instant.
It is just a short minute between Babak shutting his eyes and being startled awake, but the digital clock in the room says two full hours have passed. Somebody’s kid keeps on knocking the door and calls Neda “mommy,” yet whenever she chases after him he would vanish. Sometimes the knocking is adult-strength, but the most of said adult Babak and Neda can see is its shadow stopping before and then walking away from the room. In the film’s best set-piece, deserving of the descriptor due to Casey Genton’s punchy sound design and Maz Makhani’s literally character-driven photography, a woman wearing Neda’s clothing walks into the room where Babak is sleeping, files her nails, replies to him, becomes out of sight, files her nails even more violently, and stops — the entire time the camera stays focused on Babak’s increasingly pained face. When it changes to assume Babak’s point of view…
It is appreciated that Ahari makes visible attempts to build the film’s domestic drama component — the issue-hinting dinner party prologue lasts a while before the unsettling opening titles and the first sighting of a cloaked figure (jinn?) — but in the end it’s the horror one that receives more care. Babak and Neda’s baby Shabnam is tied to a secret that needs to be told to check out, though the button-cute’s toddler clearer role is to be the key piece of a chilling sequence. The characterization of Neda proves to be a double-edged sword; on one hand she encounters the gentler (even if jolting) kind of night bumps and neater revelations than Babak, on the other it is refreshing to see a horror film where she is less of a target of said bumps and revelations than he. If one has to compare, between The Night and fellow Iran-led horror Under the Shadow, Ahari’s film has less subtext and fainter traces of emotion. But if all you’re looking for a reason to sleep with the lights on, or at the least with more tosses and turns than usual, here it is.
With the ability to raise hairs and oftentimes intrigue you, The Night deserves to be the talk among creatives of Iranian descent and genre fans everywhere upon release. Perhaps folks planning to globetrot post-pandemic as well, but, again, clear out the secrets before checking in. Sorry for imitating a broken record — just trying to give you all the chance to see morning here.