Kourosh Ahari’s psychological thriller mines anxieties of Iranian-Americans living in the States for bone-chilling effect.
The thing about guilt is that it can wear you down until you’re more a cluster of exposed nerve endings than a human being. That, at least, is the premise behind The Night, a new psychological horror and debut film from director Kourosh Ahari. Set in Los Angeles and spoken almost entirely in Farsi, The Night is a wonderfully odd mix of being spare and a bit too much all at once.
After a dinner party with friends, new parents Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) find themselves lost when their GPS goes on the fritz. Ahari makes good use of LA’s seedy downtown, which already has the feeling of being haunted. Already exhausted, a little tipsy, and suffering from a toothache, Babak agrees to stop at a hotel so they and their infant daughter can get some rest. The young family checks into the Hotel Normandie, which Angelinos will recognize as a real local landmark.
The plot is put on a slow simmer, building up the tension and dread until the last fifteen minutes, which are—for lack of a better term—buck wild. There is a true sense of just how isolated Babek and Neda are throughout the film, one of the reasons you’ll see so many comparisons to Kubrick’s The Shining. Babek and Neda are not unlike Jack and Wendy Torrence, who become increasingly estranged from each other while being isolated from the outside world. Add the extra layer of the isolation that comes with being an immigrant in a country that has been openly hostile to middle eastern expats, and you’ve got some truly unsettling suspense.
Unlike the Overlook, things only get more terrifying when other people start to show up. There’s the ominously Farsi-speaking homeless man (Elester Latham), a highly unsettling desk clerk (George Maguire) who could have just walked off the set of Twin Peaks: The Return, and a cop (Michael Graham) who answers their call for help only to give what might be the biggest fright of the movie.
The film is elegantly sparse, even packed with creepy imagery, black cats, and jump scares. Where it gets to be too much is in the soggy middle, in Babek and Neda’s many attempts to escape the Hotel Normandie. There is a labyrinthine quality to these sequences that feels intensely dreamlike (or nightmarish) but after the fourth or fifth “this time they’re gonna make it” fake-out it begins to feel more maddening than terrifying.
The hotel may be haunted, but the demons are all their own.
That frustrating buildup is ultimately a necessary reflection of Babek and Neda’s relationship, burdened by secrets that neither one can quite bear to share. The hotel may be haunted, but the demons are all their own. As the terror mounts, so too does the tension between the couple, and the only way out is to unburden themselves of their deepest secrets. It’s an effective device, the need to share and the need to repress working in tandem to one another.
The Night could easily have been a hokey humdrum horror in less skilled hands, but Ahari’s slow pace and deep character work makes for some profoundly emotional horror. While some folks may detest the term “art horror” or, god forbid, “elevated horror” this impressive debut feels right at home next to movies like Hereditary, The Invitation, and The VVitch. There is a great deal of similarity to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a movie where emotional trauma is expressed through fear. And Babek and Neda have emotional trauma in spades. A long separation, a new baby, leaving behind your home country; these are things that happen every day but have their own (sometimes devastating) emotional cost. There is no one who punishes us harder than we punish ourselves.
The Night is available now on Video on Demand.