Synopsis: A couple become trapped inside a hotel with their demons — real and imagined — until they can confront the secrets of their marriage.
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Elester Latham, Michael Graham, Armin Mehr, Leah Oganyan, Golbarg Khavari
Director: Kourosh Ahari
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Several years back I had some free time around Halloween and a lifelong curiosity to know what it was like to work behind the scenes of a haunted house. So almost on a whim I went and signed up to be one of the “creeps” at a popular local fright fest. I’d long enjoyed the thrill of being scared in person, though as I grew older, I started recognizing I was more interested in the reactions of those around me than being shocked myself. Turns out it can be hard work terrifying the general paying public and it takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and a hefty amount of throat spray to keep your voice healthy enough to surprise them with a shriek. I wound up having it easier than other employees since I was in a “dark room” basically a space devoid of light where guests wound up scaring themselves more than anything I could do to make my ghostly presence known. The darkness plays tricks on the mind and though your eyes may adjust over time, you can’t ever be sure that what you’re seeing is truly real.
It’s in a similar blackness a husband and wife find themselves trapped along with their infant daughter in Iranian American director Kourosh Ahari’s clever horror film The Night, which kicks of IFC Midnight’s 2021 slate of releases. Coming off of a slam dunk 2020, IFC Midnight has set a high bar for itself so to come out of the gate with a movie shot in Los Angeles and filmed mostly in Farsi is a big gamble…but it’s paid off quite well. What begins as one film eventually escalates into something all together different and unexpected, giving audiences a richer experience than they might have imagined.
A late-night dinner party at a friend’s house has left Iranian immigrant husband and wife Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) exhausted but wanting to make the journey home with their adorable daughter in the backseat to sleep in their own bed. Babak has had a little too much to drink but it winds up being a faulty GPS that gets them lost in an unfamiliar part of inner city of Los Angeles. Finally caving to his wife’s wishes, Babak pulls up to the imposing Hotel Normandie and books a room so they can get some shut eye and start fresh the next morning. A front desk clerk (George Maguire) is accommodating but his behavior is admittedly peculiar. Though the couple chalks it all up to the lateness of the evening, they’ll wish soon enough they trusted their first instinct and driven back to their friend’s house.
Entering the hotel has set Babak and Neda on a collision with a future that has as much to do with secrets of their past as it does with their present relationship struggles, enveloping them in a nightmare they can’t explain or escape from. Who keeps knocking on their hotel door just as they are about to sleep, only to disappear when the door is opened? What’s all the loud commotion above them? Why does the front desk clerk speak of gruesome events in history he was present for with an air of sadness tinged with regret at missing out on more? Just a few of the bizarre occurrences Babak and his family face throughout the night…and I haven’t even mentioned the other visitors.
Working in the actual Hotel Normandie, a key place of historical interest within Koreatown in Los Angeles gives the film an uneasy authenticity and I sure hope the hotel wasn’t hoping to use The Night to drum up more business. The lobby is gorgeous, but the upper floors fit the horror motif of the final half of the picture quite nicely. The small cast is given a lot of rich material to work through and both Hosseini and Noor are excellent in crafting characters forced to face their own worst fears and mistakes over the course of the evening. While it takes a little bit to get acclimated to Ahari’s style and to develop a comfort level with leads that are constantly bickering, once we’ve settled into the rhythm of their personalities it’s not as grating. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the enormous contribution Maguire makes to his supporting role as the hard-to-pin-down front desk clerk. Is he there to help or to hinder? We aren’t quite sure and a veteran character actor like Maguire knows better than to show his cards too soon.
If there’s a drawback to The Night, it’s that it suffers a bit from the limitations of the filmmaking process itself. As I mentioned earlier the ornate hotel lobby is grand, but the rooms leave much to be desired. I’m not sure if the hotel room was a set or filmed in an actual room of the hotel but it’s drabness was a bit on the nose for the developments that would happen later on. There’s also, from what I can tell, a curious amount of re-dubbing going on…and I could be wrong but either one actor re-recorded all of their lines or a different actor entirely came in to perform the speaking role. I briefly thought Ahari had done it on purpose (which would have been a neat little twist) but there’s no payoff to the voice discrepancy so I’m assuming it just must be a technical bit of business. These may seem like little issues, but they begin to pile on when the production design plays a key role, almost serving as another character in a way, in the film you’re selling.
Obvious comparisons to The Shining aside, if The Night is any indication of where the indie distributor is headed throughout the year, audiences are in for a diverse line-up of films that challenge as much as they chill. I already have The Vigil in the hopper for review in a few weeks and it’s another strong case for the face of horror looking different than it has in the past. As forThe Night, it has made headlines recently for being the first U.S. production that has been approved for commercial exhibition in Iran since 1979 and the film is also a top-flight representation of the next generation in psychological horror. Reserving its shocks for the most opportune moments of maximum impact and instead focusing on maintaining a consistent aura of atonal dread, Ahari gleefully toys with audiences as much as the spooky hotel at the center of the film appears to enjoy keeping the exhausted couple up for an all-nighter.