By Tim Cornwell
Sometime this year, an Iranian-American movie will make history. “The Night” — a hallucinatory horror film by the young director Kourosh Ahari — will be the first U.S.-produced movie to show in Iran’s cinemas since 1979. It is already out in the U.S., and getting high praise from the critics.
The star of the film is actor Shahab Hosseini, who played the divorcing dad in the Oscar-winning “A Separation,” and later won a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Salesman.”
Unusually, “The Night” is shot in Persian with English subtitles, and the same version of the movie is screening in the U.S. and Iran this year.
“I could have made this movie in English. It could have happened with an American couple, but my purpose was to make an Iranian film that can be shown in Iran,“ first-time director Ahari said in an interview with Kayhan Life.
“This has been one of our goals with a movie like this: part of it is bringing the Iranian community, the film-maker community together,” he explained. “All these wonderful people that were part of the team, they are all of Iranian descent. Most of them grew up here or were born here. There is still that love and passion for making a movie about the culture, and things that take them back to those memories, to their roots.”
Reviews in the U.S. media have been excellent. “Scary and stylish,” wrote Variety, the entertainment industry bible. “An accomplished psychological chiller,” added the Hollywood Reporter. Another leading reviewer called it “a knockout debut.”
Ahari left Iran at 18, first working in a pizza restaurant before finding his way to a film degree course at San Jose State University, where his short film won best drama at the school and was selected for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Graduating in 2016, he formed a production company, Mammoth Pictures, with Alex Bretow.
“The Night” came about when Isfahan-born writer Milad Jamooz entered a screenplay competition launched by Mammoth. His story happened in Iran, but the decision was made to change the setting to the US. From there, every department head on the film — director of photography Maz Makhani, composer Nima Fakhrara, production designer Jennifer Dehghan — was Iranian or of Iranian descent, although with strong resumes in the US film industry.
Meanwhile, actor Hosseini teamed up with director Ahari and producer Alex Bretow last year to launch a company named Pol Media — ‘pol’ means ‘bridge’ in Farsi — with the goal of building cultural bridges between the US and Iran in art, culture and particularly cinema.
Their next film project is a planned biopic about the pioneering Iranian-American physicist and inventor Ali Javar, whose inventions dramatically advanced the development of lasers. Hosseini is set to star as Javar.
“What’s amazing about Javar is how he came to the US without knowing any English, without having any undergraduate degree. He then goes to Columbia and enrolls in the Ph.D. program and finds his way through the full system, learning English at the same time,” Ahari said.
“A lot of people including Iranians don’t even know about this, and he hasn’t been celebrated for that or [received] recognition that widely,” Ahari said. “We are hoping to make that possible.”
The political timing for this Iranian-American filmmaking venture could hardly be better, with the departure of US President Donald Trump, the president who took the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accords. Ahari said he could “already feel” the change in atmosphere with President Joe Biden moving into the White House.
“The Night” is the story of a happy evening that turns into a nightmare.
At a cheerful dinner in a Los Angeles kitchen, a group of Iranian emigre couples banter with friends, play games and down shots. But Neda is angry about Babak’s drinking, and there is tension in the air.
The night ends with the bickering couple driving off home. Babak is drunk, has a splitting earache, is confused by a mysteriously malfunctioning satellite navigator, and is spooked by shadowy figures in the dark. They somehow find their way to a desolate hotel, where a weird night manager drops dark warnings, and offers them room 414.
There’s no madman running around with an axe or a chainsaw in “The Night;” no spirits spinning heads, no costly special effects that pile on the gore. But when this Iranian couple, played by Hosseini and Niousha Jafarian, stray into the eerily empty Hotel Normandie, a nightmare begins that is very much of their own making. In a needle-sharp atmosphere of horror, they find that there’s no way out.
Intense camera work, stark design and haunting, and an unsettling score build the tension to the point where a small boy’s voice or a knock on a car window make the viewer jump in their seat. The high-wire tension is almost non-stop.
Alongside character actor George Maguire on the hotel’s front desk, the police officer who answers the couple’s panicked call — actor Michael Graham, who actually worked as a policeman for 28 years — only add to the fear level in the film, as Babak and Neda confront the lies that are haunting them.
The soundtrack includes the distant strain of the sorna, the Persian double reed instrument dating back to Achaemenid times, and the kamancheh, the Iranian bowed string instrument. Also on the track is the tune made famous by Marilyn Monroe: “I Want to Be Loved By You.”
“From the beginning we always had this idea of Western music or score but with Iranian- influenced touches,” said Ahari.
Ahari said he was a big fan of classic movies. His horror favourites were “The Others,” “Hereditary,” and “The Conjuring.”
Several reviewers drew a comparison between “The Night” and the Jack Nicolson film “The Shining” – at least in the hotel setting.
“I really enjoy watching horror, but more psychological than supernatural,” Ahari explained. “Something that I can connect to, something I can see, that feels like someone’s experience.”