(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Michael Graham, Elester Latham, Armin Amiri, Steph Martinez (voice), Kathreen Khavari, Gia Mora, Leah Oganyan, Lily V.K., Ali Kousheshi, Amir Ali Hosseini, Hana Rahimzadeh, Sam Tarazandehpour, Boshra Haghighi, Sara Fuqua. Directed by Kourosh Ahari
Sometimes, we lose our way. Not just metaphorically, but literally – and not unusually, both at once. Finding our way back home is hard enough when our GPS is faulty. Sometimes, we have to fight through demons of another kind, too.
Babak (Hosseini) and Neda (Noor) have been enjoying an evening out with their friends. Party games, good food and the company of their friends should be the recipe for a pleasant evening, but it is obvious there is some tension between them. Babak has had maybe a little too much to drink and the couple, along with their infant daughter, are getting ready to head back home.
But Babak is probably in no shape to drive, and Neda’s license has been suspended so Babak definitely doesn’t want her driving. So the Iranian-American couple head through the twists and turns of Los Angeles late at night and get lost. Oh, they have a GPS but it’s acting wonky. Running low on gas and definitely in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to run out of gas in, they decide to pull into a hotel and sleep it off until morning.
The Hotel Normandie seems ordinary enough from the outside, but an unsettling encounter with a homeless man (Latham) does nothing to alleviate Neda’s already frazzled state of mind, and while the obsequious night manager (Maguire) seems courteous enough, there’s just something off about him.
They check into their room and right away it’s rough sledding. Their daughter is being fussy, and for good reason; there is an uncommon amount of unsettling noise to be heard, from the footsteps in the room above to the child plaintively calling out for his mother and the loud knocking noises. At first, they chalk it up to their own state of mind but soon they begin to see things that causes them to realize that there is something very wrong at the Hotel Normandie which like another famous California hotel, is the kind where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
From a technical standpoint, this is an amazing piece of work. Sound is utilized in a powerful fashion, and not just for jump scares (although there are a few of those). There is also a very effective use of light and shadow and cinematographer Maz Makhani does an excellent job of creating a creepy vibe (the Hotel Normandie, incidentally, is a real hotel and was used as a filming location for the movie). It might surprise you to know that the cast and crew were largely Iranian or Iranian-American and although most of the dialogue is in Farsi, the locations were all right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Both Hosseini and Noor need to be at the top of their game because they are in virtually every seen either separately or together. There must be enough chemistry together to convince us that they are married, but enough discord between them to remind us that the marriage is in trouble. Even the soundtrack is calculated to rachet up the tension without using horror movie tropes – or at least not many.
The movie may be paced a little bit slower than most American audiences are used to, but Ahari is like a master chef here, layering clues and subtle hints to give you a picture, but never makes it obvious what’s cooking; it is left to the viewer to figure out what it all meant and whether what you saw is what you think you saw.
=Unfortunately, that can work both ways – for and against a film. There’s a maddening feeling like you’re seeing only a portion of the movie and that critical pieces are being left out. Even after the strong ending, and although much of what is happening is explained, I still left the film feeling like I’d seen an incomplete picture, like there were important things just out of frame that I should have been able to see. While I like the feeling now more than a week after I viewed the film, at the time I didn’t appreciate it at all.
This is an impressive work, albeit a flawed one. The scares are mainly subtle and the horror rarely overt, although new parents will certainly chime in when I say that a fussy baby can be a horror show all its own.
REASONS TO SEE: An atmospheric horror film with terrific sound and cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting can be over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sequences of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first American-made film to be invited to screen in Iran since the Iranian Revolution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Followed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Riding the Rails