The first US-produced film to be released in Iran since 1979, this stylish but repetitive horror has the air of an endless nightmare
Before the opening titles have even rolled, Kourosh Ahari’s The Night has achieved something remarkable; it’s the first US-produced film to be granted showings in Iran since the 1979 Revolution, a supernatural morality play done mostly in Farsi, but set in Los Angeles with an American supporting cast. Even though the final product isn’t quite as interesting as its backstory, often falling into the traps of cliché and repetition, it’s remains a striking horror story, trapping you in an endless night of guilt and fear.
Heading home after a slightly tense dinner party with their friends, couple Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) get lost in LA thanks to their GPS going haywire. With their young baby in the car, they decide to stop off at the nearest hotel – the Normandie, famed in real life for apparently being haunted. Greeted by a disturbed homeless man at the door and a deeply eerie night manager once they get inside, Babak and Neda are already on edge before they even reach their room, where the real terror awaits.
They’re apparently the only guests for the night, but it’s not long before malevolent forces are rattling at the door while creepy, parentless kids giggle and dart about the corridors. A haunted, purgatorial hotel is not exactly an original recipe, but Ahari dials up the ghostly elements slowly and subtly, immersing you in this world before unleashing the spirits. There aren’t many big, showstopping scares, Ahari instead relying on a creeping unease that keeps you in the headspace of the characters, trying to work out what is happening to them and why.
It eventually becomes clear that the pair, particularly Babak, are being punished by the hotel for their past dishonesty and cowardice, and Ahari conjures up powerful allegorical images, particularly in the go-for-broke final half hour. It's also a bit of a slog to get to this point. The Night spends a lot of time going round and round in circles, and as the scares become more repetitive in the middle act, they lose a lot of their power – the repeated motif of a malignant black cat gets particularly wearing, never really doing anything interesting or original with this oldest of cliches.
With its empty, decaying corridors and joint Iranian-Anglophone origins, The Night is a little reminiscent of Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, but it lacks the relentlessness and metaphorical kick of that 2016 stunner. Ahari is content with giving his audience time to mull over what it all might mean, including a slightly frustrating ambiguous ending which doesn’t commit hard enough to leave a properly lasting impression.
There’s still a lot to recommend here, though, and Ahari’s stylistic and thematic confidence is very impressive for a debut feature, while compelling, deeply felt performances from Hosseini and Noor ground the action in reality and ratchet up the intense fear whenever the couple’s baby is threatened. It’s not hugely original and you will probably be able to guess key plot points quite a while before they happen, but as an otherworldly examination of domestic unhappiness, The Night emits a strange, shuddering power.
The Night is now available on various digital platforms.Where to watch