Traditionally, vampires have been used primarily in films for only a small handful of reasons, but lately most vampire films seem to stick to talking about the bloodsucking members of the undead as avengers and saviors of some sort. Seemingly gone are the days where vampires were seen as allegorical reflections of societal fears (illness, addiction, trauma, rampant capitalism). Even the coolest of vamps often only came with surface level notions of what used to be a reliable literary and movie monster.
That changes greatly with Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature length debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (spun off from her 2011 short of the same name). Blending impressionistic and expressionistic styles in stunning black and white with a sense of sociopolitical commentary rooted in a keen sense of nostalgia, it’s easily the most original and meticulously composed vampire film in quite some time. She proves herself to be a real student of film with cultural references that range from highbrow filmmakers to sometimes unjustly maligned pop musicians. She also made her film entirely in long takes, black and white, and entirely in a foreign language despite being shot in Southern California. It’s a worthwhile oddity that starts off scary, but around the halfway point becomes an incredibly moving and unexpected love story.
First, Amirpour looks at the life of Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man trying to make the most of the crappy life he’s been dealt in an Iranian ghost town literally named Bad Town. His dad is a junkie and he has to clean up a pop’s debts to a lecherous dealer and pimp with a hideous facial tattoo and a worse demeanor. Separately, she follows the titular vampire (played exceptionally by Sheila Vand), a night stalker on the hunt for the blood. When the two formally meet at the halfway point (except for seeing each other in passing), the unnamed teenager shows tenderness and understanding towards the young man.
With a title that obviously seeks to subvert a sadly all too real fear that all women have travelling home alone in rough neighbourhoods, it’s clear that Amirpour seeks to create a deeply allegorical and artful piece of work that can stand alone as a genre exercise. It can obviously be seen as a takedown of Iranian culture or a spot-on feminist critique of social moors around the world, but it can also be viewed as a film about lost youth, the price of greed paid down through generations, or just as a quirky, indie horror flick.
Amirpour lets her wealth of talent speak for itself and without pretension. She knows what she’s doing, so nothing is constructed to be too obvious in either the text or subtext. It’s well constructed and deeply thoughtful without treating the audience like they won’t get what she’s going for. She also never makes things too askew for the film to be classified solely as a work of art and commentary and not a piece of entertainment. Most horror films aiming for the earned kind of sweetness Amirpour is going for (which is evocative of Wim Wenders by way of Werner Herzog) descend either into comedic anarchy or muddled, bullet point posturing. It’s a delicate film made with just firm enough of a touch to take hold. I guarantee you’ve never seen this specific kind of film before, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment any film of any kind can be given.