A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a great title. It sadly conjures feelings of isolation, vulnerability, and danger. But in this film, the girl is the danger. You shouldn't be worried for her. You should be scared of her. She’s a vampire, stalking her prey down dark alleys and dim sidewalks, disappearing into the night leaving bloodless corpses behind. That’s hardly new material for the vampire genre to explore. Since the first glimpse of these creatures, stories have gone to the areas between victim and victimizer, between the vulnerable and violent, for inspiration, seduction, and fright. Now we’re at what seems to be the tail end of the most recent vampire fiction fad with Twilight faded, True Blood ended, and no new vamp catching public imagination in a big way. That’s what makes writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature so welcome. Like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from earlier this year, it finds new angles from which to view these old monsters.
Amirpour sets the action in a fictional Iranian town called Bad City, a small, crumbling place with corners of crime, the better to house victims whose disappearances won’t be too unusual. The setting makes the stuff of typical vampire movies into something both new and old. The vampire (Sheila Vand) slinks through the frame wearing a chador, flowing black fabric that’s at once distinctly culturally specific, and from the right angles looks a lot like a cape. Her garb blends into the black of night, leaving only her pale face’s hollow glow under sporadic street lamps. In one scene she hops on a skateboard and glides down the road, rock music bumping on the soundtrack. It’s eerie and captivating, a melding of classic vampire iconography and modern Iran in one cool art film vibe.
It’s a film of studied cool, a simmering mood coaxed along by its sincere affectations and collection of influences. It’s effective. Shot in handsome, wide black and white framing by cinematographer Lyle Vincent, Amirpour builds a feeling of timelessness. Though it has specificities of both genre and setting, it seems to exist in its own hazy, nightmarish dream space where people move slowly, deliberately, take long silent pauses as they stare off into the middle distance. These moments aren’t quite as evocative as the Jarmusch languor they so clearly suggest, but there’s something elementally appealing and unnerving about the crisp high contrast blacks and grays and the blocking that has the vampire appear suddenly, quietly, deadly, like Nosferatu’s hip multicultural sister. There’s a coolness, and a coldness, but as the film moves slowly through what becomes a rather typical vampire story, it stirs up welcome tension and chill.
As so many vampire stories do, this one involves the creature meeting a human who just might be a potential love interest. He (Arash Marandi) is cool too, driving a Thunderbird, and looking like an Iranian James Dean. He has problems – a sick father (Marshall Manesh), debt to a tattooed drug-dealing pimp (Dominic Rains) – but finds those concerns fading to the background as he’s drawn to this mysterious woman. They meet outside a costume party. He’s dressed as Dracula. That’s good for a dark, dry laugh. Their relationship is a slow and subtly developed as the rest of the film, imbued with more danger than romanticism. Their first night together, she contemplates his neck for an unsettlingly long period of time. The shot holds, she stares, and the tension builds without resolving. Later, the film slips into its end credits on a similar note. She’s captivating, but she’s a danger.
We don’t forget the threat she poses. There are attack scenes throughout, providing doses of trashy horror fun. She seduces her first victim (well, the first we see), slowly pulling his index finger into her mouth, and then biting down. He screams. Blood spurts. He pulls away. She slowly slides the severed digit back out of her mouth, and then gingerly teases his shocked face with it. That’s a great bit of horror imagery, the kind that’s surprising, scary, funny, sinister, and sensual all at once. Other doses of violence aren’t as lurid, but they’re creepy nonetheless in a movie drunk on mood and cool more than anything else. Amirpour is clearly having fun cooking up and sustaining a mood of unrelenting melancholy danger spiked with tremors of seductive connection. It doesn’t add up to much, but the sensation of watching it unfold is tantalizing. It’s a promising debut, a rough-around-the-edges gathering of influences with enough mash-up originality and striking imagery to make a memorable mark.