Produced in America with an eye for theatrical release in Iran, IFC Midnight’s The Night is one of the first strong horror entries of 2021. It also marks a stellar debut for Iranian-American director Kourosh Ahari. The film invokes the type of dread that resembles Kubrick’s The Shining, and not just because the film is set in a hotel. So much of The Night is steeped in well-paced psychological horror that is bone-chilling.
[Slight Spoiler Warning]
The first film to land a license for theatrical release in Iran since the 1979 revolution, The Night centers around Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Neda (Niousha Noor), who are new parents. After leaving a gathering, the couple pulls over and checks in at Hotel Normandie, a seedy club in L.A. From the outset, their relationship is strained. Babak, who knocked back a few drinks, insists on driving, despite Neda’s pleas for him to hand over the keys. Thanks to Babak’s stubbornness, they almost get into an accident, which results in more bickering. The dialogue here reinforces the notion that this couple is exhausted, both with each other and as parents. Babak especially always looks tired, constantly rubbing his eyes and sometimes squinting at the road, struggling to stay awake.
Something about the hotel immediately seems off. Its hallways and lobby are dimly lit, other than some red lights that are anything but calming. No other guests are present. Shortly after the couple checks into their room, they hear footsteps and a young child call out, “Mommy, mommy.” The ghosts, or whatever you want to call them, are never seen center frame. It’s unclear if Babak and Neda even see them, or they’re just so mentally and physically tired. As the hour stretches later and later, the footsteps above intensify and children’s laughter echoes. This worsens the tension between the couple and the struggle to calm their crying baby. All they want are a few hours of sleep and a quiet baby. The hotel denies them that and pushes them to the brink of insanity.
Further, the hotel torments them by revealing secrets that they kept from each other. It’s never explicitly stated what they hid from each other, but it’s hinted through the film’s imagery, such as a wedding ring that Babak sees on the carpeted floor.
Both Hosseini and Noor give strong performances. Their characters are frazzled and frayed, dealing with relationship troubles and the challenges of parenthood. Their exhaustion is palpable as they try to flee the hotel or soothe their wailing child. Writers Ahari and Milad Jarmooz deserve credit. The dialogue is so fine-tuned that it never feels overly dramatic, even when the scares ramp up and the couple’s grip on their sanity becomes increasingly shaky.
Like The Shining, the hotel becomes a character, complete with doppelgangers, a prophetic homeless man who lingers outside the lobby, and child ghosts. The shots of long hallways and the sound of pitter-pattering footsteps are unsettling. Each time the couple tries to leave, the hotel sucks them inside again. Night is never-ending at Hotel Normandie. The film’s only real weak point is that the hotel’s mythology is not fully developed. It’s unclear if the hotel is meant to be the actual Hotel Normandie in LA, allegedly one of the most haunted hotels in the city. The beauty of the film is that it can be any city in the world and any hotel, but still, some history about the hotel could have filled in a few gaps.
Like a Hitchcock film, The Night warrants more than one watch because each frame is meticulously planned. There are clues early on, including paintings hanging on the hotel’s wall, that give a nod to the ending. However, viewers will not realize that until the film reaches its haunting conclusion. Then, if you retrace the couple’s steps and walk the hotel’s eerie hallways and lobby again, paying close attention to what’s framed and how, what’s seen and what isn’t, the ending makes even more sense.
Like Psycho or The Shining, The Night is a film that summons the uncanny. Its leads give gripping performances that show the stress of parenthood and the horror of being trapped in one long, hellish night. The scares and setting create unease and psychological torment. The Night is one of this year’s first memorable horror movies.
The film will release in select theaters, digital platforms, and On-demand on January 29.
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