Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, a rare American-Iranian co-production, is a disappointedly cliched horror offering.
The Night will be released virtually in the US this Friday by IFC Midnight.
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Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, a low-budget haunted house film starring The Salesman’s Shahab Hosseini, is notable as the first US-produced film to receive distribution in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Sadly, there are very few truly effective scenes. Babak (Hosseini) has moved to the USA with his wife, Neda (Niousha Noor), and their baby. At a friend’s dinner party, through closeups and parlour games, Ahari establishes the comfort of their middle-class existence in the Atlantic: all the comforts of a nice kitchen excite Neda, while Babak drinks shots of liquor and constantly huffs his weed vape. They are a little homesick, but relocating has caused refreshingly little cultural tension. Or so it seems.
Babak seems inherently afraid of his own baby, born in America. “Why do you look at me like that?” he cries to a POV cot-shot. After the party, Babak drunkenly gets in the car to drive his family home, insisting he’s in a fit state. In the first of several nods to The Shining, aerial shots follow the car. Ahari uses the formless streets they snake down to highlight his transnational filmmaking: the wide roads could be an American highway, or Iranian. These people are everywhere and nowhere, and the table is set for a charged exploration of identity.
Soon, the bag of tricks comes out, as The Night rolls through increasingly tired tropes. Neda forces the blatantly wasted Babak to pull over and check them into a nearby hotel for the night. As they approach the large doors of the Hotel Normandy, Babak sees a cat, staring as intently as Black Phillip, so obviously CGI that it creates a jarring uncanny valley. Scares such as this are endearingly chintzy at first, with Babak inventively using his limited resources. When Babak notices a creepy painting on the foyer wall — the back of a suited figure’s head, with a mirror reflecting that same faceless image — the image is not inherently scarier than a picture in a children’s book. But the more Ahari lingers in front of the painting, the more it becomes. From here, we run the gamut of the early creeps without pausing for breath, from an unexpected nosebleed to a dripping tap. As Babak struggles to sleep and his long night of the soul begins, it starts to feel as though this night will drag on forever — for the viewer, too.
The flat digital textures of Maz Makhani’s cinematography are effective: phone and car lights give depth to the sets, giving them a heightened realism which intensifies the supernatural storyline and pushes the viewer further on edge. The fast and cheap utility of digital has been embraced for self-evident reasons by horror filmmakers. At least as far back as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, which literalised the tension between our corporeal forms and the digital traces we leave behind, the interests of horror cinema have converged with our ever technologically-dependent lifestyles. Recent ‘screencapture’ films like Spree and Unfriended delve in similar waters, but are more interested in toying with innovative ways of telling stories from those traces on live streams and social media. The Night is a far more simple film that nonetheless wades in the same waters: smartphone messages regularly deliver the plot, surveillance serves as an eternal anxiety for the characters, and the film’s digital photography delivers scares through the high contrasts of its expressionist lighting.
As pictures start appearing on Babak’s phone, knocks on the door provide jumpy disturbances, and the staff are nowhere to be found; Kohari accelerates his use of tropes and scares to levels of fervid anxiety. When the couple call the cops for help, the bald, sour-faced officer who shows up is aggressive and suspicious. As a reflection of the hostile reception to middle-eastern people in America, it is a stock scene, but frank enough to work. But Kohari is non-committal about the film’s politics. It doesn’t throw itself into the Jordan Peele-Blumhousian ‘social thriller’ pattern enough to be designated ‘a film about…’ Yet its barrage of images are never wild enough to be thought-provoking, meaning the film fails to present a new vision of the horror of modern American life.
It is fun to see Hosseini playing the same self-serious honourable man that he did for Farhadi, transported to a horror setting, but the film doesn’t ever pull away from what we have seen him do before. This vision of the empty American hotel, a corporate depersonalised space where your subconscious can run wild, chimes with the hallucinatory repetition of western lockdown lives. It leads to the kind of twist ending that would make Charlie Kaufman blush, layered in Jungian irony. The most surreal image lands at the end of the film, reusing a predictable motif from two acts previous. The matter of The Night’s distribution in Iran does signal an exciting new turn for global cinema, but that does not by itself buoy a creaky narrative.
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