Everything goes wrong in the California set, Iranian horror film The Night because Babak (Shahab Hosseini) wants to sleep in his own bed. After a night of partying with his brother, he insists that his family won’t stay over. He and Neda (Niousha Jafarian) pack their one-month old daughter into the car and they start the half hour drive home. Neda doesn’t want him behind the wheel after having had so much to drink, but her license is suspended. Their GPS breaks in the middle of the city, droning, “Recalculating, recalculating” repeatedly. As they bicker, Babak hits something.
When they get out to investigate, whatever he hit is gone. Babak growls, “It’s just a cat. So what?” Neda gets back in the car, but Babak spots a dark figure watching him. He doesn’t mention the apparition, but he caves and agrees to stay the night at the closest hotel.
Things escalate once they check into the Hotel Normandie. A strange boy knocks at the door, calling out for his absent mother. The mysterious figure Babak saw earlier keeps appearing, watching him. The porter lists tragedies he saw and tells Babak, “I’ve seen a lot of death, all sorts of it. The worst is the death of a child.” The atmosphere is heavy with dread.
Once he’s established that feeling, director and co-writer Kourosh Ahari shows a knack for manipulating viewers. None of the scares in The Night are new, but they’re well done. Ahari finds ways to draw out the tense moments and let his viewers sit in those moments, waiting for the jump scare. He plays enough with the timing that knowing something’s coming doesn’t make it any less jarring.
He also works with implication. His spectres are frequently heard—clanging on the roof, whispering to Babak or Neda while they try to sleep, or knocking on the door—but seldom seen. This strategy works to keep the budget low and the scares high. None of this would work without excellent sound design, which The Night has.
The scares are also relentless. Once the family gets to the hotel, something is constantly happening. As Babak and Neda lie in bed, trying to get as much shut-eye as they can before the baby wakes them yet again, whatever force is haunting them keeps coming.
The strongest part of The Night is Ahari’s refusal to give an easy answer to the two most important questions: what’s happening and why is it happening?
Early in the movie, Ahari hints at multiple reasons that this is happening to Babak and Neda. It could be that whatever Babak hit, as suggested by a black cat motif, getting its revenge on them. Maybe their new tattoos—either half of a runic symbol tattooed on their respective forearms without knowing what it meant—are cursed? Could this hotel in California (“You can check out any time you want / but you can never leave”) itself is the source of their supernatural suffering? There are frequent uses of the phrase, “No way out,” maybe referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play about hell, No Exit.
All of these possibilities are more interesting than the regressive, anti-woman sentiment that the ending of The Night seems to imply. The revelation is frustrating, because until that point the movie is a lot of fun, and nothing implied that this is where the movie might be heading. There’s no gun introduced in the first act, but it’s going off in the third.
This is a movie I want to like. The leads, Hosseini and Jafarian, turn in strong performances. The scares are well executed, if familiar. The sound design is excellent. It’s a beautiful house with thematic termites, turning to dust by the end.
Wicked Rating – 6/10
Director: Kourosh Ahari
Writers: Kourosh Ahari, Milad Jarmooz
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Jafarian
Release Date: January 28, 2020 (Santa Barbara International Film Festival)
Studio/Production Co.: Mammoth Pictures, Indie Entertainment, Orama Filmworks, Leveller Media
Language: Persian, English