The vampire as metaphor has had a fascinating staying power since Bram Stoker’s Dracula turned Eastern European folklore into a gothic tale of sexual repression and liberation. At times they’re feral beasts of horror or sexy, brooding heroes tortured by their own immortality. Or…Twilight. The point is vampires, while we may associate them with certain traits, can be as powerful, vulnerable, and insightful as the narrative allows. Their monstrosity is subjective, giving storytellers ample room to explore the nature of vampires and the world around them. In A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour crafts a vampire that is neither virtuous nor villain, but somewhere in between. Though she is what we’d typically classify as a “monster” it becomes clear that Bad City has more than its fair share of demons.
In the Iranian town of Bad City, The Girl (Sheila Vand) stalks the streets at night, preying upon the worst of the worst in a city where death and loneliness thrive. Her curiosity, however, leads her to an unlikely romance with Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man struggling to do what’s “right” when nothing is as clear-cut as it seems. As their lives become more intertwined the truth becomes harder to hide.
Billed as the first Iranian vampire Western, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night exists in a deliberately nebulous space that keeps it open to interpretation. One can view it through a feminist lens as The Girl primarily attacks men who bully and exert their own power on others, mainly coming to the defense of a prostitute, Atti (Mozhan Marnò), who’s connected to both Saeed (Dominic Rains) the local drug dealer and Arash’s addict father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh). There’s also commentary to be gleaned from the frequent shots of oil rigs, the open, almost casual display of dead bodies in a ditch, and the stagnant feel of Bad City that appears to be stuck in several time periods as the director’s feelings on Iran and the country’s culture. Amirpour, however, finds the interpretation to be more reflective of the interpreter. As for her own view on the themes in her film, she said:
In this case, it’s really about loneliness. A vampire is the loneliest, most isolated cut-off type of creature. She also has something very bad to hide about who she is and it’s a brilliant disguise. It becomes a way to stay under the radar and underestimated. There are a million ways to read it. It will tell you more about you than it does about me. [Source: LA Times]
In regards to the disguise element, Amirpour is referring to the chador that The Girl wears in the film. A symbol of systemic oppression towards women in the Middle East, the chador and The Girl’s use of it as a means of making herself an unassuming presence have been the focus of many reviews; proof positive that The Girl is subverting the nature of the garment and using it as a tool of empowerment. The chador was apparently what inspired Amirpour to make a movie about a vampire, saying:
In Iran, I have had to wear a hijab [headscarf], and personally I find it completely suffocating. I don’t want to be covered up in all that cloth. But there was something about the chador though. It’s made of a different fabric. It’s soft and silky and it catches the air. When I put it on, I felt supernatural. But I also get to take it off. [Source: LA Times]
There are several scenes in the movie where Amirpour shows the ethereal and supernatural quality of the chador when The Girl is out on the town. One particular moment that comes to mind is The Girl riding a skateboard down an empty street, letting the wind catch the fabric. It’s one of the rare moments where she naturally smiles, experiencing a strange sense of freedom. Framed within the shot, the chador simultaneously resembles bat-like qualities associated with vampires and the silhouette of a superhero’s cape. It’s a beautiful display of the film’s cinematography that also highlights the prevailing theme of concealment. Interestingly enough, when The Girl and Arash meet and speak to each other for the first time, Arash – high as a kite – is wearing a Dracula costume. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that the two begin to form their romance when both are essentially in disguise.
Where A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night really shines is in its style and mood. Filmed in black and white, Amirpour imbues Bad City and the people living there with a sense of style that maintains an air of retro coolness but is also indicative of a culture mired in crime and death. Bad City is stuck somewhere between the old and the modern as are most of its denizens. The opening shot of Arash establishes his greaser/James Dean aesthetic right down to the vintage car he drives. The Girl dances to 80s synth-pop but her short hair, striped shirt, and black leggings give off a mod Audrey Hepburn meets Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction vibe. The influence of Quentin Tarantino is hard to miss, so the look of The Girl was probably intended. Saeed has a very 80s look about him as well, sporting a track suit, gold chains, and living in an apartment that even the Land of Oz would say needs to be toned down. The stylistic choices are another way of commenting on the disparity of wealth in a place like Bad City where there’s a clear contrast between the rich and the poor but even the lower classes prey upon each other. Filmed in Bakersfield and Taft, California as stand-ins for Iran, Amirpour shows the industrial, ruined state of Bad City, telling us with only an establishing shot of the distant oil rigs exactly why everything has gone to shit.
But it wouldn’t be a vampire movie without an element of horror to it, right? Oh, yeah…Twilight. Anyway, Amirpour keeps the horror to a minimum. Yes, The Girl feeds, but the strength of film lies in the suspense. We don’t meet The Girl until about fifteen minutes into the film. In that time, we’ve met the rest of the cast and we see just how destitute Arash and his father are and how Saeed uses drugs and intimidation to get what he wants. When The Girl finally shows up, she’s at a distance, watching Saeed geting a blowjob from Atti after verbally and physically abusing her. From there on, Amirpour establishes a pattern. The Girl shows up and begins to stalk her prey. She’s unassuming and yet unnerving, constantly staring with wide eyes that are simultaneously curious and cold. Vand plays the part expertly. The Girl is a mostly silent character, which means all of the performance is in Vand’s eyes and movement. As the tension builds in the excruciatingly long shots and pauses between The Girl and her next meal – heightened by the sound of footsteps amped up to keep the audience as nervous as possible – Vand makes us feel and understand what The Girl is going through. The same is true of her scenes with Marandi. Though Arash is the more talkative of the two, there are several long pauses where the two are merely staring at each other, conveying everything with their eyes and making us believe that the two have made a connection. It’s the final ten minutes, however, where the two give us the most nerve-wracking moments of intensified suspense, all without saying a word. All because of a cat.
Currently in limited release, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is well worth your time if you have any interest in the work of upcoming directors like Amirpour or desire something more substantial from your vampire-themed entertainment. If you can’t find a showing nearby, there are two issues of a comic book written by Amirpour available for purchase that give you some background on The Girl. Hopefully that will tide you over until the film comes out on VOD and DVD/Blu-ray.