The Night hints at building nuance into its familiar template, but ultimately jumbles familiar genre tropes to no discernible end.
It’s never a good look to be too dismissive of modern commodities, but at this point, the avalanche of slow-burn, largely symbolic horror shlock is rampant enough to make genre fans long for the days of simple, cheap slasher flicks — at least they usually delivered the goods. It’s a bummer to report that IFC Midnight, at present, seems content to imitate A24 to increasingly diminishing returns, this time with the haunted-hotel snooze fest The Night. Filmed in and around L.A., including in the famous Hotel Normandie, with an Iranian cast speaking mostly Farsi, The Night occasionally, startlingly, threatens to become interesting before ultimately retreating to shopworn clichés. In other words, this isn’t the second coming of The Shining, despite the presence of a creepy night watchman and bathroom-banished ghostly apparition.
Things begin promisingly enough, as married couple Babak Naderi (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Neda (Niousha Jafarian) take their leave from a small gathering of friends and family to travel home with their baby daughter, Shabnam. It’s late, and Babak is probably too drunk to be driving, but he bristles at Neda’s entreaties to let her take the wheel or ask for directions, revealing a quick-to-temper personality. Neda is obviously the voice of reason here, and Babak’s curt dismissals of her concerns are but the first sign that he’s kind of an asshole. Eventually, they discover they’re more lost than they originally thought and decide to stop at a hotel to sleep it off. As the bickering intensifies, it becomes abundantly clear that Babak and Neda each bear some barely suppressed animosity towards the other, and that their marriage is most decidedly on the rocks. These early scenes very much resemble a scenario from an Asghar Farhadi film, and not merely because Hosseini has starred in About Elly, A Separation, and The Salesman; rather, there’s a careful, identifiable calibration to the escalating tension between the couple that suggests this would have been a better relationship drama — the kind Farhardi trades in — than a horror film.
Once they check in to the Normandie and have settled in their room, the requisite odd occurrences immediately begin, from kids loudly knocking on the door and then disappearing to amplified footsteps sounding from the floor above. These annoyances gradually turn into full-blown hallucinations, as Babak becomes increasingly unhinged and Neda tries to comfort their baby while also navigating Babak’s temper. Director Kourosh Ahari does manage to muster a few unsettling moments, including a scene with an unhelpful police officer that plays off of the tension of an immigrant couple trying to explain themselves to a disinterested white face. But the scenario quickly becomes repetitive, and before long the film enters wholesale into the realm of metaphor, where the hotel becomes a repository for hidden secrets and long-buried guilt, The term “elevated horror” gets thrown around a lot, although it’s hard to precisely define (like pornography, it’s an “I know it when I see it” sort of situation). Still, most successful horror films deliver a kind of hard-earned catharsis wrought through intense terror, or at least something shocking to goose the audience. The Night withholds any such catharsis while also whiffing on the terror, ending on a purposefully ambiguous note that irritates more than it entices. When every scene is hinted at being mere illusion or trick of the mind, subsequent ideas and actions cease to have any real dramatic heft. In the wake of this loose construction, The Night amounts to little more than a jumble of familiar genre tropes and formal tics that simply don’t add up to much.