Wednesday 31 March 2021

Some reservations: "The Night"

Kourosh Ahari's The Night has an obvious precedent, as a commercially inclined horror movie conducted largely in Farsi: Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, set in Iran and amid the upheavals of the 1980s. Ahari's film, however, unfolds in the present day, and in present-day Los Angeles at that, first plunging us into a cosy dinner party attended by Iranian exiles and close-knit friends with links to the medical community. It's a rare example of what we might define as diaspora horror (Remi Weekes' acclaimed Netflix item His House would be another): from a Western perspective, a couple of its biggest jolts arrive during that opening scene, with the sight of Iranian men boozing liberally while the women debut freshly etched tattoos. And yet these characters aren't entirely at home as we join them. Our protagonists are the perhaps knowingly named Babak (Shahab Hosseini, the lead in Farhadi's The Salesman) and Neda (Niousha Noor), young parents who make the mistake of checking into the Normandie, a quiet little hotel off the main L.A. drag, after Babak, seen drinking a substantial draught at that gathering, has a funny turn on the drive home. We know it's a mistake from the way the camera mimicks the camera in Kubrick's The Shining, hovering vulture-like over the family's car as it sets out on the road to nowhere. Other warning signs, once we reach the hotel, include an upright Black panhandler with a weepy eye and an ominous mutter; spectral children at play in the corridors; old-timey music wafting through the lobby; bodies in bathtubs; and decidedly limited after-hours service. The Kubrickisms are laid on so thick that you keep scanning the edges of the frame to see whether somebody's mounted an axe to these walls.

The Night isn't badly made within limited means - working up a measure of gloomy style simply by refusing to put money in the hotel's electricity meter - but it's so obviously derivative of its towering inspiration that it never becomes its own satisfying or distinct thing. (I spent much of it flashing back to Ti West's fun The Innkeepers, which subverted its haunted-hotel set-up by treating it as the basis of a peppy game.) One potential sticking point for audiences may be that Babak isn't a terribly sympathetic presence for the most part, having imported certain attitudes from the old country. Much of what follows over the course of - yes! - the night chimes with his offhand remark during a party game that if Neda died, he'd find another woman to raise his child. (Naturally, he nudges his wife out of bed in the middle of the night when said youngster starts squalling.) The idea that everything here might be a Christmas Carol-like wake-up call is an intriguing one, but the performances were too variable to win me over, and the horror elements are an odd mix: flat homage to an established genre landmark, Paranormal Activity-like sequences of nothing very much going on in darkened rooms, and razzy jump scares occasioned with no more subtlety than they would be in a Conjuring movie. I'll credit Ahari with one clever reversal around the hour mark, and his closing sequence makes a haunting gesture towards what the diaspora experience might be for some, but it still seems a waste for him to have made Iranians speaking Farsi in an American setting subject to much the same loud crashes and bangs so many characters have endured over the past four decades of horror movies. It's integration of a sort, I guess, but the cultural specificity that elevated Under the Shadow vanished, along with my interest, into the night.

The Night will be available to stream from Friday.

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