“The first Iranian vampire Western.”
That’s how surprise indie gem A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is billed. Marketing-wise, eye-catching. Film-wise, even more so.
First time director Ana Lily Amirpour extended an 8-minute festival short into this, an art-house feature boiling over with a mash-up of elements that surely looked ridiculously at odds on paper. A chain-smoking, James Dean-ish teen (Arash Marandi) who drives around Bad City in a classic Ford Thunderbird. A vampire (Sheila Vand), the “Girl”, who roams the streets at night in a Burka in search of prey. Actors speaking in Farsi. A Tarantino-esque soundtrack. Spaghetti Western inspired opening and title credits, with extended musical sequences throughout. Oh, and the whole thing is shot in black and white in… Bakersfield, California.
Good? Yes, in fact, superb.
Vampire films have matured in recent years. We’ve seen quality entries, ones that (thankfully) bend the genre, push the mythology forward, and breakdown archetypes of the past. Let the Right One In (2008) comes to mind — a stellar existential work that eschews cliches. Like that one, A Girl Walks Home at Night is also a slow burn, and, I’m betting, quite unlike any other vampire film you’ve seen before, Iranian pedigree or not.
Girl is the proverbial sheep in wolf’s clothing. She doesn’t so much as pursue her prey, or make grand, sweeping entrances from the dark, as she does just appear. She’s just there, walking alongside her mark. She’s selective, of course, and we’re rooting for the kill. Case in point, when Girl lours an abusive drug-dealer (Dominic Rains in a creepy, star-making turn) into her lair. Tattoos across his neck and face, shaved mowhawk, it is him the audience fears. As he does lines of coke, and as he get increasingly agitated and restless, she seemingly does the opposite, quietly observing him from across the room, waiting. It’s a disarmingly effective scene, to watch the tables turn, every so slowly.
Cinematography (Lyle Vincent) is pure joy. A dream-like aesthetic pervades this film. It feels at once classic, yet we don’t doubt that this is 2015, and this is innovative art-house, surely paying homage, yet paving its own new, exciting path. Pairing the visuals with a soundtrack that is at times spaghetti western, and at others, alt-pop (think Echo & the Bunneyman), results in several scenes that are memorably chic. At times, Amirpour’s approach feels inspired by music videos, with various, eclectic tracks, driving dialog-free scenes. Yet, her direction is the anti-thesis of modern film, with frenzied, rapid-fire cuts, instead embracing long, thoughtful takes.
This is the kind of film that once the credits start to roll you immediately pull up IMDB.
“Why are you following me?”
Performances are far beyond what we might expect from typical, low-budget, indie fare. As Girl, Sheila Vand gives us perhaps one of the most interesting vampires to hit the big screen in quite some time. She sashays elegantly down rain-soaked streets in Bad City – her Burka at times visually akin to Batman’s cape. Our only window into her world is through her eyes, with her facial expressions letting us know everything we need to know about being caught in an endless, love-less cycle of despair, hurt. Vand’s performance reminded me of Scarlett Johansen in Jonathan Glazer’s striking Under the Skin (2013). Both play woman, not of this world, who stalk prey on the city streets, while trying to make sense of something unavoidable, preordained.
One nit, a few of the moments involving Arash’s addicted father (Marshall Manesh). The junkie scenes occasionally don’t feel as well connected to the visually stunning material that takes place out of that apartment. Speeding up at least one scene also felt out of place. But, in the end, these are very minor irritations that don’t quell an absolutely outstanding feature debut.
This is the kind of film, that once the credits start to roll, you immediately pull up IMDB, and work your way down the cast and crew. I’d expect many of these names to go on to have strong careers in film. I’d put Ana Lily Amirpour at the top of that list (like so many others). She’s one to watch. An exciting director, with unbridled creative vision, and, most importantly, the ability to pull it all together, and execute. If you enjoy horror films, or art-house Tarantino, or even East of Eden (trains and oil!), you owe it to yourself to track down A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.