Sunday, January 19, 2020

SBIFF ’20: The Night

Airbnb horror is a relatively new phenomenon, but it follows squarely in the tradition of hotel horror. Some of the genre’s best have been set in hotels and motels, like The Shining, the Psycho franchise, and Horror Hotel, starring the great Sir Christopher Lee. Maybe we our just intuitively unsettled by the experience of temporarily making your home in a strange room, knowing full well people you’ve never met also have the key. Try to sleep tight. An expat Iranian couple definitely won’t when they check into a hotel with a 100% vacancy rate and a check-out time of maybe never in Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Babak and Neda’s marriage suffered while they were apart, but they have tried to make up for lost time after she joined him in America. They both take pride and delight in their baby, but there is still tension between them that always gets aggravated when Babak drinks. This is one of those nights (boy, is it ever). He is too proud to crash with their friends after the dinner party winds down, but Babak agrees to stop at a hotel when he gets a little too woozy during the drive back. Unfortunately, fate directs them to the wrong hotel.

It certainly is quiet, but that is because they are the only ones staying there. Yet, they are plagued by a mysterious prankster pounding on their door and crashing sounds coming from above the ceiling. Then weird time and spatial things start happening. They soon try to leave, but the hotel won’t let them.

It turns out Persian horror is a real thing and it is consistently good. Ana Lily Amanpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow are both superior films, but The Night can still hang in their company. Arguably, it could probably also be classified as “elevated horror” or “post-horror,” or whatever critics are trying to call films like Eggers’ The Witch these days, but Ahari’s slow build eventually reaches some pretty malevolent and surreal heights.

The Night is definitely note-worthy for the presence of Shahab Hosseini (the star of Farhadi’s The Salesman) as Babak. In fact, he rather plays him as if he were a Farhadi protag—the kind who constantly dig themselves deeper holes through their acutely human faults and foibles. He radiates bad vibes and anxiety, while Niousha Jafarian counterbalances his simmering presence as the more reserved and fatalistic Neda. Horror fans will also appreciate George Maguire’s sinister smoothness as the hotel’s night receptionist.

Ahari and co-screenwriter Milad Jarmooz will not shock experienced genre fans with their third act revelations, but they should definitely be impressed by the eerily entrancing look and vibe of the film. Indeed, the ominously striking work of cinematographer Maz Makhani transcends category and provides the bedrock foundation of every scary moment. Very highly recommended, The Night screens again tomorrow (1/20), during this year’s SBIFF.