A toothache always spells bad news. It’s almost lyrical in its foreboding, lyrical in how immediately it is communicated to audiences. When a character on screen, or even a figure in a story (a Tolstoyan tale, perhaps) mentions a toothache, we feel it in our guts, our gums, that dull, ever-present ache that racks through every bone in the body, its throb keeping pace with the heartbeat. In films, it’s such a sinister presence, heightening every one of the plot’s twists — this character is going through hell with a toothache! we think.
Kourosh Ahari’s The Night begins with a toothache. A strain of violin strings and a bathroom in heavy shadows, the only light a frail, flickering stream pouring from the persistent flame of a tealight. Babak Naderi (Shahab Hosseini) is standing at the sink, prodding his aching teeth. He then splashes water on his face. When he looks up, his reflection in the mirror is gone, returning only when he rubs the water out of his eyes. It’s a creeping few moments — the tension only relieved when a woman’s voiceover says, “It’s morning, wake up.” We cut to a dinner party game of Mafia.
Written by Ahari and Milad Jarmooz, The Night is disorienting and shadowy, it’s brooding horror falling heavy as a pall. Stunning and subtle, the film unfurls in a deeply sensual way, akin to the way a toothache’s pain spills slowly across the body like molasses. This is a glinting gem of a film that has a shrewd understanding of how cinematic (narrative and atmospheric) elements can house and precipitate horror, that feeling of dread that fuels the genre, in a much more compelling manner than dialogue. You will feel the horror of The Night in your bones, your teeth.
Babak and his wife Neda (Niousha Noor), and their baby Shabnam (Leah Oganyan) are leaving a dinner party and they have a two-hour drive ahead of them. Shabnam is sleepy and the couple is cranky — we learned earlier that Babak and Neda have been arguing and bickering more often than not. They are seemingly continuing a long-standing quarrel over Babak’s having left Neda alone in Iran for five years, soon after they married, as he looked for work and stable housing in America, bringing Neda over only very recently. As the couple drive home, with Neda upset that Babak didn’t let her drive — he’d had some alcohol to drink at the party — their navigation system malfunctions, leaving them to drive around in circles as Shabnam gets increasingly irritated. At Neda’s behest, Babak drives the family to a hotel.
Manned by a single, creepy receptionist (George Maguire) with a storied past, the hotel is vacant and dark, with the receptionist keeping the front doors locked to anyone but guests. The family gets a room and attempts to get some rest. What follows is a turbulent, seemingly endless night that sees the Naderi family harassed by beings that swiftly disappear once either Babak or Neda pursues them. The night continues with loud noises overhead, and increasing tension and distrust between Babak and Neda, all as little Shabnam cries and cries and Babak’s toothache persists.
Watching The Night feels like one’s lungs are filled with bees. The onslaught of spectral harassment the family faces in a hotel that winds in on itself, a seemingly impenetrable labyrinth that is simultaneously eerily vacant and teeming with invisible guests, all make for an intense unease that the film rejoices in heightening. In cinematographer Maz Makhani’s hands, the film is all leaden shadows embroidered by the silvery blue of moonlight and astral neon red of the traffic lights outside, seeping in through the looming hotel windows, or glowing a stale yellow from the endless hallways with their stained carpets like molding cheese. The ghostly Nancy Sinatra-esque lobby music sounds like a wraith singing forlornly at the end of a long tunnel, and saturates every level of the hotel, which seems to swallow the couple deeper into itself the more they attempt to escape it.
The quick-sand-like hotel plays a stunning supporting role in The Night as it houses the couple’s tight-lipped dance about one another. And they are indeed tight-lipped, communicating only about their hauntings, arguing incessantly without ever effectively talking about their discontents, all as Shabnam gets progressively uneasy. Babak and Neda each have their own unique specters haunting them and the plot urges the husband and wife to communicate with each other if they want to shake loose these ghosts. But the couple infuriatingly refuse to do so; perhaps from pride, perhaps from fear — it’s redolent of the manner in which so many couples spend lifetimes together without meaningfully speaking with each other. And so The Night employs the most deft aspects — cinematographic, astral, sonic — in addition to its specters, to build unease and tension within the space of the narrative, and within us as we watch. Ultimately, the film brilliantly illustrates anger and horror’s ability to compound exponentially within relationships, building off of the most miniscule and inconsequential secrets.
This movie is relentless as it closes in like a vise grip around our necks, raising the stakes with every frame as it endangers not only Babak and Neda, but also little, innocent Shabnam, who cries and cries, or laughs at the ghosts floating about her parents. The dire straits this film erects are so eerie, to the effect that the sense of unease never cares to quell and stays with us long after the credits have rolled.
The Night is an affecting, perfect watch not only for how its stylistic renderings pay homage to greats such as The Shining, 1408, or Under the Shadow, but also for the dim and velveteen aura that is uniquely its own. Within the lush shadows of The Night lies a story so much more complex than any traditional tale of a fracturing marriage you might have seen, for the stakes seem so much higher, so much more acute than anything your mind might recall. And all because there is a secret pain, existential as it is literal, at the heart of The Night, dull and piercing as a toothache.
The Night was originally released in 2020.