A Farsi-language horror film from the Iranian diaspora, writer/director Kourosh Ahari’s The Night is the latest entry on a very short list of crossover hits, most notably headed by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Ahari left Iran aged 18 and moved to the US but remains fascinated with the hold the past has over the present. His short Generations took a more straightforwardly drama-based approach to a “when did it all go wrong” analysis of one man’s life. The Night swerves into genre but is actually doing something similar.
At its simplest, it is a film about one couple’s bad night at a hotel. Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and wife Neda (Niousha Noor) have spent the evening with a group of fellow Iranian migrants to America who, like them, are all doing well in their adopted country. But rather than stay the night after an evening flirting with decadent western stuff like booze, the slightly fractious couple decide to “head home” with their infant child. They are in fact going to spend the night at a hotel but don’t tell their hosts for fear of offending them.
En route, the couple’s car appears to run over a cat (horror klaxon) but there’s nothing under the car when they look. At the hotel, a gloomy place like a boutique version of The Shining’s Overlook, the night receptionist (George Maguire, star of Generations) is unctuously solicitous (horror klaxon) as he runs the couple through a shortlist of do’s and don’ts, incuding something about a button to open the front door, which might as well come with an on-screen message saying “this detail will pay off in act three”.
And up we go, to their room, where certain elements of the film start to come together in a “things go bump” sort of way. The opening quote about the existence of multiverses, the recently acquired his-and-hers matching tattoos of an arcane symbol, their vulnerable child and their even more vulnerable relationship.
Hosseini and Noor are both very good at this, having started off the film smiling at each other through slightly gritted teeth, as the night at the hotel throws one spooky element after another at them – who is that child in the corridor? what are those noises upstairs? are they the only people in this hotel? – they are entirely plausible as a couple who deal with pressure not by pulling together but by pulling apart.
Like that film Open Water where a couple on a diving trip end up out at sea being menaced by sharks – and start bickering! – Babak and Neda turn on each other. As the weird events become more disturbing, secrets from their past start to emerge. The horror might be more internal than either of them is prepared to admit.
The hotel is evocatively conjured by DP Maz Makhani and sound designer Casey Genton. Dark as a cave, even with the lights on, there are pools of shadows everywhere. The sounds of a night-time building – creaks, clanks, distant hums, ticking, scratching, gurgles – are put to good use in Casey Genton’s sound design.
It’s a strongly made film, in other words, tightly played, though there’s an insistence to the soundtrack music suggesting a lack of faith in the material at some level. Ahari doesn’t seem sure if he’s heading out into J Horror territory – a spooky bathtub – or in to something more psychologically complex. In the end neither side of the equation quite gets its full due.
The multiverse idea – different realities and timelines assert themselves at various points – seems to be picked at rather than attacked with gusto, which is disappointing (though, god knows, Christopher Nolan has got this territory fairly well covered).
Films that turn on the question “is this really happening or is it imaginary?” have to provide an answer at some point, or come up with some devious way of not answering. The answer The Night provides won’t satisfy horror fans who like to do the black runs, but for those on the nursery slopes it might just do.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021