Genre is a funny thing. Take the vampire movie. It’s been around since the silent days of cinema. It’s been used as a conduit for horror, action, romance, and comedy. It’s been used for trash. It’s been used for art. And, yes, it’s been showing signs of wear lately. When Dracula Untold hit theaters last year promising a “new” look at the most rehashed vampire tale of them all, it had all the earmarks of a tired genre piece from a wheezing genre that had finally exhausted itself through countless repetitions.
The undead will always rise again, though, and here comes A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the most interesting and original vampire movie to come along in…well, in a long time.
It comes from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour. You’ll sometimes see the film referred to as an “Iranian vampire movie” which is partially true. Amirpour is Iranian-American, by way of England, and the film’s dialog is in Farsi, but the movie was filmed in Los Angeles and features a cast of mostly Iranian-American actors. That in-between quality, with one foot in Iran and one in American, helps to inform the quality of the film, which isn’t really set in either place.
It’s set in a dream world called Bad City where the ravines around town are stacked with dusty dead bodies and crime seems to be the main form of commerce. We meet Arash (Arash Marandi). He’s young and handsome, with a nice car and a junkie father. He’s something of a petty criminal—he’ll swipe the odd set of earrings from a house where he’s doing lawn work—but he seems like the nicest guy in Bad City.
Then we meet The Girl (Sheila Vand). Clad in black (like she’s “religious or something” as one character puts it), she only shows up at night, a silent presence. Under her cloak she wears jeans and a striped shirt. She’s both an eerie presence and a normal one—and is somehow more creepy as a result. She seduces a pimp and drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains) by letting him think he’s seducing her. He takes her back to his place, fires up some music, snorts some blow, tries to cop a feel, and sticks a finger in her mouth to not-so-subtly imply that he wants oral sex. The Girl not-so-subtly lets him know that he’s made the worst—and, indeed, the last—mistake of his life.
What will happen when Arash meets The Girl? Will he go the way of Saeed? Or will these two isolated figures find a way to save each other?
If all cinematic monsters tap into our fascination with death, only vampires seem to be innately romantic about it. While werewolves express a repressed primal wildness, a desire to tear through the world like an animal; and zombies confront our fascination with decay, the twisted desire to see the human body rot; vampires represent a more intimate form of horror. Unlike most movie monsters, they seduce more than they overpower. From the beginning, there’s been a sexualized air around vampires. Following in this tradition, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night casts a spell that is at once sexy and unsettling.
Shot in careful crafted locations in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Lyle Vincent, the film has a pared down quality—like a real world Sin City. Amirpour draws influences from disparate—even incongruous—sources, from Michael Almereyda’s Nadja to Sergio Leone’s slow-boiling westerns. It’s got a little Iranian New Wave and a little Anne Rice. Most of all, though, it feels like the work of a singular artist. In the same way that Pulp Fiction recontextualized cinematic genre elements with a powerfully original aesthetic that made it all feel new again, Amirpour takes her own idiosyncratic selection of elements—from the world and cinema and music and graphic novels—and combines them into something we’ve never seen before.
Amirpour has been quick to dismiss any idea that she embedded political subtexts into the film. She told Emma Myers at Film Comment last year
I personally am not setting out to make any comment about anything. She’s just a lonely girl who’s a vampire, and she’s trying to give meaning to what she does […] I suppose that when you make a film, whether you set out to or not, you’re making observations. So it is some observation that you have about a person or a world or an idea that filters through your brain, and then the person playing the part and all of these people making the film. So I’m sure there are some conscious or subconscious ideas floating in there.
But it’s not Iran, it’s like a fairy tale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand. They’re searching for something in this loneliness.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night feels every bit like a personal film, a personal film that taps into a universal loneliness and yearning for connection, but it’s also a film that feels unavoidably political. As Amirpour said, observations float through the ether of a film. The title itself reads like a feminist statement, inverting the usual gender expectations of a defenseless young woman endangered by a cruel masculine world, flipping it around so that the young woman becomes the source of the threat.
In the same way that something like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook used the tropes of the monster movie as a way to explore some of the dormant—or even socially repressed—strains of motherhood, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night uses the vampire movie to criticize the way women are forced to move through social spaces at their own peril. Yes, it is set in Iran, but as Amirpour makes clear, Bad City is really universal—part Iranian oil town, part LA suburb. It could take place anywhere. After all, there are few places where a girl walking home alone at night can feel entirely safe. Unless, of course, she’s a vampire.