With THE NIGHT, Kourosh Ahari has fashioned a deeply disturbing, elegantly told tale of horror that resonates not so much for its supernatural elements, as for the fear that lurks within us all that one day, or in this case, night, we will get what we deserve for our transgressions. Ahari may be using familiar tropes, but it is with a virtuoso’s execution to tell a story about many kinds of darkness, the most terrible being that with which we cloak ourselves.
Our protagonists are Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor), who start their fateful night at the home of Babak’s brother, Farhad (Armin Mehr). They are an affluent immigrants couple back together with a new baby after years apart while he came to America to establish his medical career. The separation and the reunion has taken a toll on their relationship. In the course of the evening, as the women prepare dinner, Babak confides in Farhad that Neda is homesick, and that he is feeling the effects of working in an emergency room.
The strains in their marriage are obvious with the way Babak and Neda bicker over whether to spend the night with Farhad’s family when the visit runs long, and with Babak suffering the effects of the shots he did earlier to dull the pain of a toothache. He wants to sleep in his own bed, though, and disparagingly dismisses Neda’s concerns about the danger to them and to their infant daughter, Shabnam, with him at the wheel. The ride home is tense, with harsh words exchanged and the GPS going on the fritz, causing them to drive for hours and leaving the couple lost, exhausted, and barely able to stand the sight of each other. The camera moves echo Babak’s woozy state of mind, or is it a foreshadowing of what’s to come as it sways and swoops?
After Babak hits something in the road, they decide to spend the night at a hotel, with Neda wishing that Babak would choose a venue that was less deserted. Again dismissing her concerns, Babak leads them into the Hotel Normandie, a faded relic of the early 20th century, graced with a peculiar desk clerk who seems both unctuous and menacing as he informs them with a smile, which does anything but reassure, that their room key will allow then to re-enter the hotel, should they choose to leave, but only he should be the one to buzz then out. And please don’t push on the door.
There will be no sleep for this family, as Babak’s behavior convinces Neda that he is losing his mind, and Babak becomes convinced that Neda is playing mind games with him. Over the next four hours, a lost little boy will cry out for his mommy, the banging on the rooftop above their room will cause Babak to call the police, and the pounding on their door reveals increasingly disquieting discoveries. Then there’s a picture on his phone that he didn’t take. And the desk clerk that fawns over the baby while telling Babak tales of his travels, the locations of which all have a common theme that should not bring such a twinkle to the old man’s eyes. As well as a confusion over the number of people in the hotel, all of which will send them running for the safety of the dark streets of an iffy part of town rather that stay another minute in a place where nothing makes sense.
Hosseini is superb, going from tortured arrogance at the beginning to the bemused desperation of a man who can no longer rely on his senses. He makes the loss of control, of smug reassurance in his own intellectual and physical power, palpably as frightening to Babak as anything of a preternatural nature that is happening. Perhaps moreso.
Ahari sets the mood with the use of sickly greens. Jaundiced beiges, and a dull red glow flooding the hotel lobby through frosted glass doors. In the elevator in which Babak and Neda ride to the top floor, he places a picture in which the laws of optics are violated. His is an approach that employs subtle cues about a reality that is out of kilter, in which the sound effects of a dripping faucet can raise goosebumps and a scene of a man looking at himself in the mirror is the stuff of infinite dread.
THE NIGHT creates an internal logic that is easily perceptible, while also being tantalizingly beyond comprehension. The suspense builds slowly but relentlessly, gearing up for a resolution that is a psychic shock, all the more powerful for its inevitability.