The Night, the latest offering from Iranian filmmaker Kourosh Ahari (The Yellow Wallpaper, Generations), is the first film produced in America to get a theatrical release in Iran since the country’s revolution. This is a game-changer and a history-maker that, unfortunately, stands in the shadow of a far superior film of similar descent. Back in 2016, British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari unleashed his emotionally resonant, deeply personal and utterly terrifying Under the Shadow, which was set in the war-torn Tehran of the 1980s. Where Anvari utilized real-life horrors to tell a fantastical story, Ahari struggles to make anything in his film feel real — paranormal or otherwise.
The opening credits include just two names, but they’re two fairly big names; Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman), who plays Babak, and Niousha Noor (Here and Now), who plays his wife, Neda. The relatively happy couple, with cute baby in tow, enjoy a relaxing night in with friends after which he insists on driving drunk and they essentially get lost. After squabbling about what to do, the trio descends on the seemingly deserted Hotel Normandie, which is the kind of creepy-ass place characters in horror movies tend to stay but nobody in their right mind would actually consider. Character actor George Maguire is on reception, practically screaming “something is very wrong here.”
Although the central couple speak to each other only in Farsi, the action takes place almost entirely within the confines of this one L.A. hotel. It’s an odd choice, presumably made with a view to selling the movie on both sides of the ocean, that robs The Night of the kind of rich, culturally specific detail that made Under the Shadow and even A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – which was filmed in California but set in a nondescript western town – so compelling. The hotel room should be claustrophobic, but instead the strobing lights from outside consistently remind us of the bustling strip just beyond its limits.
Before they even get to the hotel, however, both Babak and Neda notice some weird occurrences from the Sat Nav going nuts to the creepy black cat who appears to be following them and, even worse, a hooded figure clad all in black lurking in the shadows. There’s also the matter of the matching tattoos the couple got, which were chosen from the book (never a good idea) without any understanding of what they might mean. All of these are potentially interesting plot-threads, loaded with scare appeal, but Ahari waits too long to do anything with them (the film is 105 minutes long).
By the time everything (kind of) comes full circle, in the most clunky, confusing way possible, we no longer care. It doesn’t help that The Night is derivative to the point of madness. Nosebleeds, dripping faucets, a dead body in a bathtub, and a little boy saying “mommy” over and over all feature throughout, as though Ahari is ticking them off a list. The Shining is, obviously, a key reference point but not enough is done to make the geography of the hotel seem off while Maguire’s performance is pitched so high it’s impossible to buy him as a real person.
His receptionist and several other characters who flit in and out of the film all talk, bizarrely, like they’re in a David Lynch movie, which should be disconcerting but instead just makes it seem as though everybody’s dialogue is being played at half-speed. When Babak is told “there’s no way out” repeatedly by someone, or something, on the phone it doesn’t make any impact, because the audience has figured that out long before. It’s frustrating to watch characters behave so ineptly, particularly when it’s in service of such an under-cooked premise.
Hosseini and Noor are highly competent in their roles, though the characters’ barely disguised hatred for each other begins to grate the longer the film goes on. Pacing is a major issue here too, as the opening segment, set at their friends’ place, only takes up about 20 minutes of screen-time, meaning there’s over an hour of Babak and Neda stuck in the hotel. Ahari runs out of interesting ways to scare them after about 15 minutes, so the ensuing, highly repetitive time is a slog. Likewise, although the whole thing hinges on big secrets being revealed, only Neda really comes clean while Babak’s indiscretion is left vague – so, what was the point of taking so long setting everything up then?
Most egregious, however, is the way in which the director and co-writer (Milad Jarmooz penned the screenplay alongside Ahari) chooses to abruptly tie up all the loose ends. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the words “lazy” and “nonsensical” don’t even begin to cover it. If anything in the preceding hour and change rang remotely true, maybe Ahari’s chosen ending would be a gut punch. As it stands, Hosseini sells the hell out of it but there’s only so much he can do. At a certain point, The Night runs out of steam and never recovers, simply throwing everything at the screen in the hopes something will stick.
There’s a 90-minute version of this movie that gets to the point faster, ratchets up the tension quickly and then holds it tight until the big reveal. This is not that movie and, as it stands, we would’ve been better off spending The Night elsewhere, just like Babak and Neda.
WICKED RATING: 4/10
Director(s): Kourosh Ahari
Writer(s): Kourosh Ahari, Milad Jarmooz
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire
Release date: January 29, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Mammoth Pictures
Language: Farsi, English
Run Time: 105 minutes