Iranian-American director Kourosh Ahari delivers a striking feature film debut with “The Night”, a cerebral slice of psychological horror that impresses as much with its style as it does with its ability to get under your skin. Set within the creepy confines of an old history-rich hotel, “The Night” does what so many other good horror movies tend to do – explore some engaging themes while keeping you thoroughly glued to the edge of your seat.
Babak (Shahab Hosseini, so good in the Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Oscar winner “A Separation”) and his wife Neda (Niousha Jafarian) are a Los Angeles couple with a strained marriage. Despite sharing a beautiful infant daughter, there is a visible tension between them from the film’s earliest moments. Ahari and co-writer Milad Jarmooz don’t immediately tell us why. Instead they want their audience to listen, to follow their cleverly cryptic trail of clues, and to piece it all together ourselves. Oh, and they’re more than happy to send chills up our spines in the process.
Following a get-together at his brother’s house, Babak passes on an invitation to stay the night and decides to drive his family home. Never mind that he had a few drinks and shared a joint. After their GPS goes bonkers sending them driving in circles for an hour, a fed-up Neda demands they stop and find a hotel for the night. Their choice is the nearby Hotel Normandie (an actual hotel in LA), not quite Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel or Hitchcock’s Victorian Gothic Bates home, but with a similar eerie presence.
They’re greeted by veteran character actor George Maguire playing the nameless yet delightfully creepy night clerk working the front desk. Despite seeming completely vacant, the receptionist sets the family up on the top floor, room 414 to be exact. Worn out and equally tired of each other, Babak and Neda aren’t even settled in before they start hearing noises – giggles in hallway, the patter of running footsteps from above, and soon loud bangs on their door. First they think it’s someone harassing them. But as the night goes on Ahari shows that there’s something far more sinister than a pack of pesky kids.
The movie’s psychological edge really kicks in during the second half as Ahari gets us questioning what’s real and what’s a hallucination. A reappearing black cat, some unusual matching tattoos, a child’s voice softly calling “mommy” – just some the unnerving trickery to keep us guessing. At the same time DP Maz Makhani ratchets up the dread by using his camera to make the hotel a character. He slowly and methodically moves the audience from room to room, acquainting us with every shadowy corner and long spooky hallway. It’s visually striking and a key reason the movie works so well.
With a touch of Kubrickian flavor, “The Night” soon has its characters grappling with what’s inside of them as much as what’s inside the hotel. It’s here that the film’s themes slyly come into focus as does the richness of the story beyond the scares. Ahari uses every inch of his setting to immerse his audience and his characters in an atmosphere-rich environment and unloads in a final act full of chilling imagery￼ and a steady feel of unease. “The Night” is streaming now on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS