It stands to reason that if any building is going to be a spiritual sponge for bad vibes, it would be a hotel. Many people come and go, their emotions running high no doubt from stress or excitement or a million other reasons — feelings that are sure to leave a mark. Really, how could a hotel not be a potent source for low-grade evil? The Night is a rare entry in Iranian horror, one that forces the secrets and repressed emotions of an exhausted married couple to the surface, so much so that they literally become haunted by them. But while the premise is intriguing and the environs appropriately spooky, The Night perhaps doesn’t have enough to say to flesh out an entire film without occasionally feeling repetitive.
Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) find themselves in a bit of a rut, romantically speaking. With an infant daughter and a whole host of stressors related to their lives in a new country (both are Iranian immigrants in the United States, which is in and of itself a bit of a rarity for Iranian cinema, where characters seldom venture into the West), the two are utterly exhausted. Their nerves are simply at a breaking point. No matter what each character does, the other is seemingly honor-bound to find fault with it. Neda complains that Babak has had too much to drink, Babak grumbles that Neda is too much of a nag and the two trade passive-aggressive barbs that border on open hostility.
But both are distracted from taking potshots at each other when they find themselves hopelessly lost and decide to spend the night at a nearby hotel rather than try to find their way home in the dark. From the moment they set foot in the place, though, it’s clear to anyone who has ever seen even a single horror movie that they’re making a terrible mistake. From the exceptionally creepy front desk manager to the small child wandering the hallways calling for his mother, it’s basically a neverending catalog of horrors, and they should leave immediately. But the more they want to leave, the more they’re forced to stay, trapped in a web of secrets and deception that threatens their relationship and their very lives.
The concept of The Night is an interesting one — that all of the problems in Babak and Neda’s relationship, the guilt and lies and things unsaid, have become such a weighty burden that they physically manifest themselves as malevolent forces within this very spooky hotel. These spirits do everything in their power to keep the couple stuck there, and the implication is clear. Until Babak and Neda confront the dark issues within their past and are finally honest with one another, they will never be able to move forward. They will always be in this hotel, with nothing to keep them company but old resentful ghosts.
The execution, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. The Night creates and maintains an energy of dread throughout but does little to develop the story beyond that. It falls into a repetitive cycle of mild scares that recur well past the point where they’re actually effective in a horror context. The performances are consistently strong, but as the narrative should be hitting a climax, it instead becomes muddled with abstractions.
The Night serves well as a metaphor for the heavyweight lies and secrets place in a relationship. Without honest communication, resentments grow (apparently until they take human form and seek to destroy you.) It also casts into an interesting light the unique pressures, loneliness, and isolation of immigrant families. Neda and Babak’s relationship was damaged, perhaps irreparably, by the necessity of estrangement: while Babak moved to the United States to start a new life for their family, Neda stayed behind in Iran alone, without any tangible commitment from her far away husband. The couple has a small network of friends from a similar cultural background, but it’s clear that they often lack an outlet to discuss serious issues, leading both to bottle up their more complex emotions.
The Night represents an interesting foray into horror for an Iranian filmmaker. It is bolstered by strong performances, especially from Shahab Hosseini, one of Iran’s most consistently engaging actors. As a concept, it shows a unique blending of Iranian and US sensibilities, and one of the most significant co-productions between the two notoriously quarrelsome countries (this is, in fact, the first American-produced film permitted to be screened in Iran since the 1970s.) But ultimately, the narrative perhaps works better on a theoretical level, as it’s just too slight to maintain a feature-length film.