In recent years, the western and horror genres have been host to a number of films revisiting or reappraising their most famous codes and conventions: from the western remakes and pastiches of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino to recent, female-driven horror features such as Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017). What marks Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 feature debut out as something different is the way A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night merges disparate aesthetics and genres to add a layer of ambiguity and mystery to the film.
The film takes place in the fictional Iranian town of ‘Bad City’, where a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), takes care of his heroin-addicted father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh). They are harassed by a local drug dealer, Saeed (Dominic Rains), for the debts accrued by Hossein’s habit. Meanwhile, the film’s central figure looms: the vampire, simply credited as The Girl, played by Sheila Vand.
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Amirpour’s debut is a treasure trove of cultural and subcultural references, which give the world of Bad City an almost universal and timeless feel – from the skateboarding vampire, wrapped in a chador as she roams the night-time streets, to the white-tee wearing greaser looks of Arash, to the unbelievably sleazy pimp Saeed, who beneath his embroidered track-jacket is adorned in wonderfully vulgar tattoos in both Farsi and English (the calligraphy of these was provided by Amirpour’s mother). All of this against the backdrop of a setting with aspects taken not just from westerns but also from the haunting black-and-white industrial landscape of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).
Alongside the film’s achievements in merging genre and aesthetics, the characters and mood are where the soul of the film lies. Sheila Vand’s portrayal of the vampire brings depth, expressiveness and emotion. The Girl is introduced with a sense of mystery, as she is first seen stalking Saeed’s dealings, magically disappearing once he notices her. This is then immediately followed by a scene of her walking back from a shop and sitting in her room listening to music, setting the precedent for the film’s consistent shifts in the nature of The Girl’s appearance, moving between the human and monstrous aspects of her character.
Later in the film there’s a scene in which a little boy bumps into The Girl in a dark alleyway. The tension feels powerfully drawn out, with The Girl looming down, bearing her fangs at the boy. She repeatedly asks, “Are you a good boy?” in a chilling, at times distorted voice amid a droning soundscape. After this display of ferocity, The Girl then lets the boy go, dropping his skateboard in his rush to get away.
The tension in this scene is then brilliantly deflated as it cuts to a static wide shot – slowly illuminated by streetlights – of The Girl casually skateboarding down an empty road. The multiple aspects of violence, mystery, vulnerability and humour are what make up this vampire. If Bad City is the classic western town filled with lost souls, then The Girl is its archetypal, nameless antihero.
Another of the film’s most powerful aspects is the relationship between The Girl and Arash. It’s portrayed with a powerful sense of restraint and longing, reaching its peak in the scene in which the two listen to music alone after The Girl finds Arash dressed as Dracula after a costume party. The Girl puts on a song, and for its five-minute duration the two seemingly hover around each other. There’s tension and uncertainty as The Girl lingers at Arash’s neck, before they finally embrace one another.
Amirpour has only completed one feature since her debut – 2016’s The Bad Batch. This saw her returning to the arid milieu of the American west but shifting to the English language. It takes place in the post-apocalyptic desert wastelands of Texas, with a cast featuring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey.
Much like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch appears to be a marriage of styles, but this is where the similarities end. This time around, Amirpour married the setting of the cannibalistic post-apocalypse with the gaudy celebrity/influencer trappings one might associate with modern-day Los Angeles. Complete with sign spinners and muscly, beach-ready bodies, it proved a sharp change of tone from the moody, gothic restraint of her magnificent debut.