And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say… — “Hotel California,” The Eagles
Welcome to the Hotel Normandie, in Los Angeles, where you can check out any time, but you can never ...
Well. Maybe you can leave and maybe you can’t. Maybe even when you DO leave, you’re never really free, and if that sounds cryptic and byzantine, it’s a reflection of how one might feel while trying to decipher exactly what’s real and what isn’t in the elegantly frightening, primarily Farsi-language horror trip “The Night,” the first American-produced film to receive a license for theatrical release in Iran since the revolution of 1979.
We meet the Iranian-American couple Babak and Neda Naderi (Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor, respectively) as they’re attending a small dinner party in a comfortable L.A. suburb where Babak complains of a toothache and downs a few shots to ease the pain, while Neda tells her friends about the matching tattoos she and Babak have recently had inked onto their arms — tattoos that just might play a part in the night to come, with all its twists and turns. Even though Babak is probably over the legal blood-alcohol limit, he insists on driving Neda and their baby daughter Shabnam home, but after a few harrowing encounters on the road and a malfunctioning GPS system that keeps directing them to dead ends, the couple decide to spend the night at a hotel that seems a little … under-occupied. (Scenes were shot at the real Hotel Normandie, a Wilshire District boutique hotel built in 1926.)
To say they’re in for a bumpy night is like saying the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” never got a whole lot of repeat business, and yes, there are many similarities to Kubrick’s classic ahead, from the creepy, ghost-like receptionist (George Maguire) to the sudden appearance of a child in a hotel hallway to one spouse wondering if the other has gone completely, dangerously mad. We’ve already seen signs of tears in the fabric of the marriage of Babak and Neda before they arrive at the hotel, and the secrets they’ve kept from one another could hold the key to unlocking the increasingly disturbing mysteries lurking around every corner in the hotel. Hosseini and Noor are superb together in conveying the complicated and loving but at times near-toxic relationship between Babak and Neda, who are often at odds but are unified on one front: their desire to protect their baby.
Although director Kourosh Ahari is never reluctant to embrace standard-issue horror movie elements such as the cut to a stranger outside the window, a frightening sequence that might just be a dream and the spine-tingling image of a shrouded figure barely visible in the dark, “The Night” has an aura of almost beautiful stillness, interspersed with moments of shock. The score by Nima Fakhrara is suitably chilling, while the production design, lighting and cinematography all add to the brooding atmosphere and the impending sense of doom surrounding a wife and husband who are trapped in a nightmare that just might be of their own making.