You are now reading an exclusive piece from the Film Daze Digital Magazine, Issue 1:Vampires. Enjoy! – The Film Daze Team
True to their subjects’ own immortality, the vampire genre will outlive time. It’s why we’re so often drawn to vampires in cinema — they’re simple, but spellbinding, with the films more often than not standing the test of time. It’s no surprise, then, that Ana Lily Amirpour was drawn to the genre for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, her feature film debut from 2014. Amirpour, an Iranian-American, explores the vampire film in ways that shake the whole genre up rather than offering a mere cultural shift – fusing together a variety of influences in what was billed as an ‘Iranian vampire Western.’ So meticulous is Amirpour in her layering of these styles than the end result is not chaotic, but rather a dark mosaic of filmmaking.
Amirpour builds her myth from the ground up. The setting is found in the fictional ghost town of Bad City, where the humungous oil drills pump like prehistoric beasts and the river has long since dried to become a dumping ground for discarded bodies. Bad City is shot in a film noir palette of black and white, enveloping us in the darkest shadows with sparing beacons of crisp, white light. These gothic elements are twisted further in what Amirpour crafts into a Spaghetti Western — more akin to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers — familiarizing us in a distinctly American setting, while all the signs and characters communicate in Farsi.
She continues this idiosyncratic layering of style through character archetypes: the tattooed Pimp (Dominic Rains); the hopeless heroin Junkie (Marshall Manesh); the spoilt-rich Princess (Rome Shadanloo); the shunned Prostitute (Mozhan Marnò); the transgender Rockabilly (Reza Sixo Safai); and Arash (Arash Marandi). As the secondary lead and love interest, Arash sports a plain white t-shirt and slicked-back hair — embodying James Dean’s misunderstood bad boy from Rebel Without A Cause. His most prized possession is his sleek Ford Thunderbird, the car carrying so many potent American ‘50s associations with it. But he is just as lost as everyone else in Bad City, holding on to a thread of hope that he’ll finally leave his heroin-addicted father, as well as his odd jobs of drug-dealing and gardening for the upper-class. There’s a vulnerability to his loneliness and his refusal of despair. After his car is stolen by The Pimp because he couldn’t pay for the supplies of drugs, and his romantic advances to The Princess are turned down, Arash is left with nothing — but he still refuses to give in to the immoralities of living in Bad City.
As Arash tries to steer his life back in direction, he runs into The Girl (Sheila Vand). By now, we’ve seen The Girl in her predatory guise, emerging from the shadows of Bad City like a wraith. She wears a black hijab and chador, which billows in the wind like gigantic batwings. Her chador transforms a perceived symbol of male oppression into one of disguise, horror, and vengeance. She only reveals herself to her victims: men who mistreat women in the dark night. The Girl preys on men who prey on women. With her unblinking dark eyes, her whitened fangs and her hauntingly sudden appearances in empty spaces, she adopts an even more formidable Nosferatu or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The Girl is a symbol of bloody justice in the cruel patriarchy that runs Bad City — an evocative figure of the social issues pervading American, Iranian and feminist politics. Amirpour will often abandon aesthetics to fully hone in on the sheer terror of The Girl, and the power structures she confronts. The true horror is less the gore from her victims than how despicable men will justify their actions in Bad City. It’s the warning signs that stand on the end of the streets of Bad City — the symbol of a skateboarding, chador-wearing vampire.
But while The Girl may be a blood-sucking figure of utter fear, her scenes with The Prostitute and Rockabilly suggest sincere tenderness. She was a woman before Bad City made her a monster, before men made them objects, and she’s now reclaiming the night. The image of a female vampire skateboarding down a street, draped in a chador, delivers more cinematic satisfaction and truth than any monologue or montage about the repression of women could ever do. At one point she whispers to a frightened child: “Be a good boy.” This is a threat. The Girl has lived long enough to watch the boys of Bad City become treacherous men who mistreat women.
Having protected women on the streets of Bad City for over a century, The Girl yearns for more meaning in her life. She finds this on a fateful night of skateboarding, protecting her perimeters, when she comes across Arash dressed as Dracula. Unaware that she is the monster that scours the streets, he offers to protect her, so late at night — comically draping his own cape costume around her shoulders. It’s a rom-com meet-cute, of sorts, and they share the awkwardness of teenagers around their crushes. They promptly return to The Girl’s apartment that’s decorated in posters of Madonna and David Bowie, with stacks of vinyl piling on the tabletops. It is here that Arash and The Girl realize their yearning for each other, their pulse echoing for an earnest romance. With her back turned to him, Arash moves towards her with an intense longing, rather than predatorily.
(Their relationship seems inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, as another nocturnal and infinite couple whose love finds itself represented through music. The film’s soundtrack is eclectic in its mixture of Persian pop and ‘80s synth-beats — distorted and characterized in the way that everything else is. By the end of the film, Arash proves that he is not scared of her true identity and asks her to leave Bad City with him. Fusing the film’s gothic and Western roots into one, the two ride off into the darkness.)
Amirpour molds the characters and setting of the film to the point where she creates her own mythology. It’s a film about crossing boundaries — generic, social, political. Among all these underpinnings, Amirpour never once lets the viewer get lost in all these competing messages. She refuses for it to be affixed as only one thing; it’s also a film about films, a homage to the great works and styles we’ve celebrated in the past, now tactfully modernized in her distinct vision. It’s a vampire romance told through a different, but much-needed lens. It’s fresh blood to the immortal genre.