by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, March 1st, join us for the next installment of our SHRIEK: Women of Horror Film class. This time, we’ll focus on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the world’s first Iranian vampire Western, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.
Stats on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Body Count: 3 on-screen deaths
Major protagonists: female and male
Major actors: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno, Dominic Rains
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: No! Yes? Maybe? There’s a lengthy conversation between two prominent female characters, the conversation doesn’t involve a man, and yet the main character of the Girl isn’t named—but this is an intentional choice. The only thing keeping this from passing the Bechdel-Wallace test is whether we consider “Girl” to be a title-as-name rather than a traditional name.
This film is gorgeous. The framing is sophisticated and the cinematography lush. The two main stars, Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi, have faces that I could stare at for hours. Marandi in particular is dressed and styled to be a Persian James Dean, and he knows how to mug. They are truly beautiful to behold, and director Ana Lily Amirpour loves to eye-snog them with her camera. To call this an “art film” would falsely stereotype it as style over substance. While A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night oozes style and is, indeed, light on story, it’s not just Amirpour experimenting with light and shadow.
It’s a somewhat surreal mix of genres: noir, horror, Western, indie/hipster, and romance, and there are moments certainly inspired by Jodorowski and Lynch. Somehow, this all fits together. It doesn’t come across to me as a clusterfuck of ideas. It works as a cohesive meditation on urban decay. In the first few minutes, we see a ditch full of dead bodies and a man shooting up with heroin. We know what universe we’re in.
The title immediately sets an ominous tone. It suggests the threat of rape and worse. If we attach the setting, it becomes A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night in Iran, which certainly adds additional layers of context to the mere act of a woman walking unaccompanied after dark. The film never ignores the fact that Iran is currently a theocracy, an elephant that is bigger than the room itself. However, it sidesteps the conversation of religious fundamentalism.
The titular Girl is never actually named, making her a perfect phantom. She wears a chador, a cloak-like covering used for modesty by Muslim women when in public. The film reappropriates the chador in full Buffy-esque, girl power, third-wave feminism: it is now the vampire’s cape, making her a mysterious and foreboding figure rather than a contained woman. When the Girl rides her skateboard, she’s more than a vampire: she’s a hipster superhero.
Amirpour, while Persian (specifically Iranian) by descent, was born in England and grew up in America. The film, Farsi dialogue and all, was shot in Bakersfield, California. But how many American viewers will know that? The first time I saw the film, I thought, “Wow, Iran looks a lot like America.” Duh.
There are many little jokes that show us that this isn’t really an Iranian film. Characters use a variety of drugs. There’s nudity and oral sex. There’s a trans character. A costume party attendee wears a Reagan mask.
It’s not an Iranian film, but it is an Iranian-American film. This is a film outside of tidy borders. The director herself has said that she couldn’t have made a film like this in Iran. Nonetheless, Amirpour has her characters speak in Farsi, with Farsi writing in tattoos and signs and license plates. The film goes so far to stay authentic to Farsi language that occasional linguistic idioms and jokes are mistranslated into the subtitles, or else translated literally rather than idiomatically. For instance, a man calls a prostitute he’s been hiring a “blind cat” (ungrateful) when she won’t give him a freebie.
Just as the film happens outside of borders, it also happens outside of time. “Bad City,” which may be a mistranslation*, is home to raves and electronic music, but also to set pieces and costumes out of the 50s and 60s. A 1957 Thunderbird isn’t exactly something we’d likely see in twenty-first century Iran. The vampire’s bedroom features posters splashed across several decades of pop music, though 80’s synth pop (and the music that pays homage to it) dominates.
The minor villain Saeed the Pimp (Dominic Rains) is one of the slimiest people I’ve ever seen on film, and yet he’s arguably more memorable than the two leads. He’s cartoonish—far too decorated and archetypal to be believable (despite there being plenty of cartoonish people in the real world). Saeed’s face tattoo actually says “pimp” in Farsi (“jaksh”). He’s a walking stereotype of the upwardly mobile modern Persian, which is made more interesting by the fact that the director herself is an upwardly mobile Persian American. This is a larger-than-life story about archetypal people, all while being simultaneously understated.
In addition to Saeed, the protagonists themselves are not exactly “good people” by the common American or Iranian standard. One is a murderous vampire, the other a thief and a drug dealer. There are subtle echoes of Disney’s Aladdin, a cultural touchstone to many Americans in their 20s and 30s: the vagabond Persian youth who robs the middle class just to get by. In fact, all of the major characters are archetypes of this sort: the likable drug dealer, the lovable vampire, the dignified prostitute, the tedious junkie, the abusive pimp.
For a horror movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is slowly paced, self-conscious, and quiet. This is quite the trend now in vampire films, as seen in Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned and most notably in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, both of which are light on the violence and also feature female vampires in the lead. There’s barely any blood or gore, though there is certainly some—in the beginning rather than the end, reversing the tradition of big-reveal monster movies and Tales from the Crypt-style pulp spook-ems. In fact, I’m hesitant to call this film horror, but its critical acclaim, risky creativity, female lead in a repressive culture, female writer-director, and hip lead vampire all combine to make it something eminently worth sharing and discussing at SHRIEK.
*Several of the translations of the Farsi come from Kamelya Youssef’s film review on Bitchmedia.org.
Join us Tuesday, March 1st for SHRIEK: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night!
You can reserve your space in the class here.
Scarecrow Video is wheelchair accessible. We suggest bringing an extra chair cushion if needed for comfort. The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everyone an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.