Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

The Night is available on digital platforms from 2 April.

In The Night, a young couple check into a haunted hotel and discover they’ve brought more ghosts with them than they find on the premises. It’s a familiar set-up, though director and co-writer Kourosh Ahari doesn’t fall into the trap of rationalising every phantasm away as a manifestation of unresolved issues. Among Ahari’s earlier work is a short based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic psychological/feminist ghost story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892); here, he draws on a variety of film texts – including such spooky hotel dramas as The Shining (1980), Barton Fink (1991), 1408 (2007) and The Innkeepers (2011) – to ground his own original take.

From the outset, the Iranian couple are discombobulated in America – their car’s satnav fails to direct them back to their house, marooning them in an anonymous stretch of Los Angeles where night is eternal but darkness is rare, thanks to the sodium orange street lighting.

When they seek refuge in an imposing but uncomfortable hotel, a lugubrious desk clerk insists only a suite is available. Knocks, voices, a stray cat, shadow figures and non sequiturs (the clerk speechifies about assassinations and atrocities) suggest they are beset by stalkers or spectres, driving a wedge between them as they each realise things are badly out of joint. The aggressive cop who responds to their complaint tells them they’re the only guests in the place but – in a splendid coup de cinéma involving a doppelganger at the door (“That’ll be my partner”) – is revealed as another guilt-inducing apparition.

The Night (2020)

The Night is an exercise in suspense and general creepiness, getting nerve-fraying mileage out of dripping taps, filed nails, buzzing neon, footsteps in a room above (though the Naderis are on the top floor) and jarring wrongnesses (the sign on a door saying ‘This is not an exit’).

A new wrinkle is the very specific cultural milieu. Babak and Neda are recent arrivals from Iran, apparently affluent, semi-westernised (Neda is worried about Babak’s drinking, though he’s more troubled by a nagging toothache) and fluent in English, but wary of the locals. One of many creepy moments comes when Neda recognises that a gnomic warning muttered by a homeless man (Elester Latham) is in Farsi, a language she doesn’t expect Americans to speak.

The nameless clerk and cop are American stereotypes, with familiar faces George Maguire and Michael Graham reprising types they’ve played before (Maguire was a hotelier in The Game, 1997, Graham a cop in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, 2019), reflecting a recent arrival’s paranoia about a country where even normal elements seem threatening. The Naderis brought their problems to America: wife and husband are both hobbled by secrets unshared which relate to their supernatural persecution.

The Night (2020)

The clever narrative stratagem is that only one confesses to the other and the audience, but their partner does not respond in kind and is overwhelmed by fragments of flashback and scraps of narrative (like an unfinished story told by a doctor friend at the initial dinner party) we have to put together ourselves.

The Night fits in with a strain of recent horror cinema that takes the viewpoint of cultures who have tended to be othered in genre cinema. The plight of the Naderis has much in common with that of the African asylum seekers in last year’s His House – they have fled from a homeland with ghost-inducing, marriage-fracturing guilts and wind up confined in a haunted space familiar from Western horror movies.

Here, the newcomers are smoothly middle-class – like refugees from an Abbas Kiarostami drama, but assailed by the djinn from Babak Anvari’s Tehran-set Under the Shadow (2016). Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor give excellent, understated performances to match the steady drip of omens and manifestations that beset Babak and Neda. The couple aren’t especially likeable, but it’s impossible not to be drawn into the entwined yet separate journeys they take through an elongated night.

Further reading

His House gives a displaced couple no happy home

By Kim Newman

His House gives a displaced couple no happy home

Who’s afraid of fear? The real-life horrors of Relic

By David Thomson

Who’s afraid of fear? The real-life horrors of Relic

Film of the week: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

By So Mayer

Film of the week: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy