IFC Midnight: The Night (2020) - Reviewed

Newcomer Iranian-American writer-director Kourosh Ahari started out in the mid-2010s producing and directing a number of short films as well as two feature length projects before conjuring up what could be the first great horror film of 2021 with his Iranian-American language psychological nightmare The Night.  Picked up by IFC Midnight for domestic distribution, Ahari’s film made cinematic history when it became the very first American produced film to receive a theatrical release in Iranian cinemas since the Iranian revolution in 1979. 
Co-produced by Hotel Rwanda director Terry George and starring Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) and Niousha Jafarian (Here and Now), this loose ode to The Shining with just a dash of Hideo Kojima’s unrealized Silent Hill project for good measure, the film is a freakish cocktail of horrors of the mind and body which builds slowly towards a full throated shriek even the most accustomed horrorphiles won’t see coming.  As a dedicated consumer of the horror genre, this was petrifying in ways few horror films have been in the last five years with a finale that poses far more unsettling questions than it provides answers to.
Babak Naderi (Hosseini) and his wife Neda (Jafarian) are on their way home from a Los Angeles dinner party when their GPS begins malfunctioning, sending the couple and their infant daughter to a nearby hotel for the night.  Checking in at the oddly deserted historical landmark Hotel Normandie manned by a mercurial hotel clerk (George Maguire), the two plan to catch some shut eye and reconvene the next morning.  Within minutes of settling down in their room for the night, the couple begin seeing and hearing inexplicable things with both members questioning their own sanity as well as whether or not they’ll actually be able to leave this Godforsaken place. 

A classy widescreen horror picture that grows steadily more claustrophobic and hallucinatory as it goes on with a distinctly Iranian-American couple in the leading roles, The Night is like being in a steadily maddening Hell for two hours until it simply ends.  Visually breathtakingly shot by Maz Makhani who plays with the balance between light and shadow as well as color saturation, The Night feels threatening even as the haunted opening credits quietly unspool and the original score by Nima Fakhrara is sheer sonic cutis anserina inducing terror of lo-fi rumblings and electronically rendered abrasions. 
Performances by the two leads are very strong with Hosseini believably conveying intensifying fear and confusion as neither he nor we are sure of what is real, hallucination or supernatural anymore.  Also strong is Jafarian who on the one hand exudes panic and terror while also playing what could be her…doppleganger?  Before we’re sure of what we’re looking at, the film proceeds to yank layer after layer of rug out from under the characters and us.  Not since Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has there been such a controlled portrait of insanity on the screen where a character looks in one direction at a character only to turn their head the other way and find the same character standing behind them.  This deliberately confusing affront on their characters’ (and viewers’) perspective only amplifies the tension even more towards a near unbearable level.

One of the year’s scariest movies with a distinctly Iranian-American flavor not seen in American or Iranian cinema screens for that matter, The Night is the kind of horror film you have to surrender to and let it take you down its labyrinthine rabbit holes both real and imagined.  Though the premise and setup is indeed familiar, where The Night takes us was unexpected, chilling and not a place that’s easy to shake or forget.  Proof positive that the fear of demons of the mind and things that go bump in the night is something that transcends all language barriers of cinema and the horror movie.  Just proceed with caution and try not to let this one keep you up all hours of The Night.

--Andrew Kotwicki