Demons of the mind come alive in a cavernous Los Angeles hotel in “The Night,” a scary and stylish psychological horror thriller by Iranian American director Kourosh Ahari. Featuring excellent performances by Shahab Hosseini (“A Separation,” “The Salesman”) and Niousha Jafarian (“Here and Now”) as a married couple with a baby daughter and a frayed relationship, this predominantly Farsi-language production sneaks up on viewers and delivers a knockout final act. Ahari’s impressive feature debut is sure to satisfy genre fans and has the emotional heft and classy production values to attract discerning general audiences.
The first U.S. production approved for commercial exhibition in Iran since 1979, “The Night” has been acquired by IFC Midnight, which aims to release it in North American cinemas in January 2021. Comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are inevitable for just about any film about people stuck in a haunted old hotel building. Ahari and co-writer Milad Jarmooz take this in stride, nodding here and there to Kubrick’s classic while stamping this visit to a hostile hostelry with its own distinct personality.
The atmosphere is warm and relaxed at first. Babak Naderi (Hosseini) and wife Neda (Jafarian) are enjoying a dinner party with two other Iranian American couples at an upper middle-class house in suburban L.A. Though he’s had too much to drink and is coping with a bad toothache, Babak insists on driving Neda and daughter Shabnam home. When a malfunctioning GPS sends the couple around in circles, Babak decides to find a place to stay for the night. The road leads to Hotel Normandie, the 1926-built Wilshire district landmark that’s still fully operational and has the kind of striking historical features and general ambiance that seem perfect for memories and malevolence to mingle.
No movie of this type would be complete without an oddball at the front desk. Neatly fulfilling that role is venerable character actor George Maguire as an unnamed receptionist who checks them into the ominously palindromic room number 414 without mentioning that they’re the establishment’s only guests.
It follows just as naturally for unexplained sights and sounds to confront Babak and Neda and make it impossible for them to leave. It’s soon apparent that the arrival and escalating intensity of such phenomena is linked directly to unresolved issues inside the marriage. At the heart of the matter is a long period of enforced separation before Neda was able to leave Iran and join her husband in the U.S.
Ahari and his talented technical team surround these scenes from a troubled marriage with elegantly executed horror and arresting excursions into the surreal. Cinematographer Maz Makhani’s lush imagery and meticulous arrangement of light and shadow create a deeply unsettling atmosphere. Visuals are complemented by top-notch sound design and a score by Nima Fakhrara full of lo-fi droning, rumbling and feedback. Much of Fakhara’s music becomes even more menacing when mixed so low as to become almost inaudible. Helen Kane’s famous rendition of “I Want to Be Loved By You” is also used to haunting effect.
While “The Night” generally adopts a cerebral approach to the supernatural, it’s not above throwing in old-fashioned horror devices to aid the cause. A black cat, a homeless man mumbling incoherent warnings (Elester Latham) and a skeptical police officer (Michael Graham) are cleverly employed to amplify the mystery and contribute to the solid quota of genuine jump scares.
Though a couple of repetitive scenes slow things down in the middle section, “The Night” gets its mojo back with an exciting final half-hour in which Babak and Neda face the potentially fatal consequences of not looking at themselves and each other squarely in the eye. Essentially a two-hander with the occasional addition of other characters, “The Night” is faultlessly performed by Hosseini as the increasingly irritated and angry husband, and Jafarian as a wife whose mild frustration at the beginning of this long night turns into mortal fear. The final, dazzling scene is one that many viewers won’t forget in a hurry.