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Nobody's safe walking home alone at night, but the idea that women shouldn't take that particular risk has surely been an axiom from the beginning of civilization - how else can men enforce sexual exclusivity? That's beside the point here, but the general notion of vulnerability is the basis for an independent avant-garde horror film with several attention-grabbing hooks. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is directed by a woman, specifically an Iranian-American with art-school taste and a keen instinct for genre innovation. It's a drama about a female vampire that stalks her victims wearing a traditional black hijab. The B&W movie has well-defined characters but the emphasis is on a spooky atmosphere. That anybody can make an interesting vampire movie in the cultural sinkhole left behind by the Twilight films is quite an achievement. Director Ana Lily Amirpour employs lot of post-millennial content, especially a hip music track, but what she's put together has clean lines and a classic look.
The world of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has been described as an 'Iranian Vampire Western.' It takes place in a desert and one of the music cues has a Morricone feel but I don't pick up on any sagebrush genre vibe. The 'girl' lives in an abstraction of an Iranian town called 'Bad City', where the streets are always empty, but are reasonably well lit at night. A ditch outside of town could be the dumping site from Vincent Price's The Last Man on Earth, a place where dead bodies are tossed. It's no more than a, "what, the…" throwaway shot.
We're given a very limited view of what goes in Bad City. The only vehicle we see is a prime-condition '57 Ford Thunderbird, owned by a casual Ecstasy peddler named Arash (Arash Marandi) who dresses like James Dean. Arash must put up with his heroin-addicted father Hossein (Marshall Manesh). Hossein's pusher Saeed (Dominic Rains) confiscates Arash's car to cover daddy's debt; the verminous creep is also a pimp, who abuses and steals from an aging streetwalker (Mozhan Marnò). Arash also works as a gardener, and is teased and patronized by rich girl Shaydah (Rome Shadanloo), who has just had a nose job. He feels uncomfortable being in her bedroom to do a repair, a situation that reminds us a bit of Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead. A skateboard-riding street kid (Milad Eghbali) watches some of these events from the periphery, but even he doesn't see the unnamed title character (Sheila Vand), a slight girl with dark eyes who also observes, and apparently, judges what she sees. When not prowling the nighttime sidewalks, this femme nighthawk listens to trendy rock music on vinyl lp's. And every so often she steps in to claim a victim.
If that's all there were to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it would be just another millennial movie about disenchantment in the age of digital downloads. But Ms. Amirpour knows what she's doing. Even when the pace is slow her shots have intrinsic visual interest just through composition. The vampire character is at first just the familiar sight of a woman in black ethnic garb that hides all but her face. Is she neutral in terms of sexuality, or even more mysterious? In modern culture terms, especially considering world tensions, the hijab in itself represents a vague threat to Western eyes. Middle Eastern women in that garb are as 'other' as other can be.
Ms. Amirpour's play with genre expectations is masterful. When our Vampire decides to seize the attention of a particular character we're not always certain that she is or isn't using hypnotic hoodoo-voodoo. The pimp wants to seduce her, the prostitute seems fascinated in her in a sisterly way, and the little boy appears cowed by respect for older female figures. The hero... he seems to fall deeply in love with her, in a way that he cannot with the too causally sluttish rich girl Shaydah.
Our Vamp is a genuine bloodsucker, and quite impressive when she goes into action. She's lonely but does not seem a prisoner of her thirst for blood. The movie's tension and interest rises because this Vamp seems to have a moral mission. Saeed is an evil S.O.B. preying on women, and thus open season -- the Vamp makes a real meal of him. To the little boy she's a maternal bogey-woman, giving him a frightening 'scared-straight' lecture before stealing his skateboard. Director Amirpour allows our Vamp to play cute poltergeist tricks, unnerving her marks by mirroring their actions, and popping up unexpectedly (and impossibly) in the path of the fleeing boy. She makes the purloined skateboard her own. In one playful shot she rolls slowly on the board down one of Bad City's clean sidewalks. It seems a sideways comment on the old ghost-story gimmick of having ghouls and vampires glide instead of walk, as a shorthand expression of uncanny eeriness.
In other words, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has enough self-assurance to express a sense of humor, at least on some level. It's got enough character content that it comes across as a real movie, not a 'genre exercise.' Honestly, I can't think of a movie that more effectively de-mystifies the hajib dress - this perfect college-date vampire wears an ordinary horizontal-striped top underneath the heavy covering. On her feet are ordinary sneakers. It's almost funny until the attack scenes, when the artificially accelerated motion makes the flowing hajib move like a vampire's cape. It's interesting how things work in circles. Speeded-up vampire movement evidently impressed audiences in 1922's Nosferatu but later played as silly, in a fractured-flickers way. In the post-Matrix trends of film speed manipulation, this Persian she-Vamp's sudden zipping motions are impressive again.
Now that the painful fad of trendy teen-romance vampires is behind us (knock on wood), we can appreciate the simple joy of the Vamp's relationship with Arash. She would seem to share Santa Claus's super-power of telling Good Boys from Bad, and either sizes up Arash as a good pill peddler or just doesn't care because he's so darn cute. There is a constant tension that she'll just 'go feral all of a sudden' and chomp on him. The static, drawn-out scene of their embrace in her room works very well, proving Ms. Amirpour's control of the screen. We love the slow pace interrupted by flashy, Feuillade-like bits of accelerated action, we like the femme-backlash tone that allows for an uncomplicated Vamp girl / Bad Boy romance. Does Arash really know what kind of babe he's fallen for? The last few minutes are somewhat fuzzy, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the best vampire tale since the original Scandinavian Let the Right One In.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the most savvy independent horror disc release I've seen in some time. Ana Lily Amirpour's commercial instincts are as keen as her reading of the independent cult market -- her show has a Jim Jarmusch visual look but also thinks to include smatterings of nudity, and frank sexual suggestiveness. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray comes with a fat book containing promotional text about the movie but also an entire Amirpour graphic novel that chronicles a racy back story for her vampire character. I should ask some twenty year-olds walking alone at night whether that's a good move these days. It certainly makes for a deluxe disc package.
The extras leave no crypt undisturbed. The one disc contains some BTS footage, deleted scenes, stills (excellent quality), plus two featurettes, on the film, Amirpour and leading lady Sheila Vand. The most eye opening extra is an HD-quality Hammer Museum Q&A session with Ms. Amirpour, who comes off as a new-age highly articulate ethnic Valley Girl. She fields questions from Roger Corman, who seems to admire her film but would never bankroll such a risky item. Ana Lily is a live-wire personality. She got the idea for the picture when she tried on a hajib and was impressed at how strange it felt. She took pains to create the film's industrial wasteland look, in which a productive oil refinery chugs away while the ordinary population seems to live in a cloud of fear and death. To keep her actors in the right emotional mood for those extended two-shots, Amirpour played back her soundtrack cues on the set, essentially re-inventing a basic silent movie technique. It seems to work, as these wordless scenes maintain a dramatic tension.
We're told that the movie was given a positive reaction by at least one Middle Eastern film festival, but because of its theme and content it will probably not reach Iran until the disc release. Ms. Amirpour is an informed lover of film genres with no illusions about what she's doing. She's also not afraid to admit she's not entirely independent. The T-Bird in the film came from her father; and her mother has decreed that for the foreseeable future, there's No Way will she travel to the Middle East. Nothing in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is compatible with fundamentalist Muslim values.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.