A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014; dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)—Like zombies, vampires are built to last. They’re scary, they’re sexy, and they’re walking metaphors for everything from urban ennui to drug addiction, bottomless greed to everlasting love. They also assimilate into other cultures with supernatural ease; the first time I heard about Amirpour’s self-described “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western,” my first thought was “What took her so long?” Then I remembered some of Iranian cinema’s rules and restrictions—like the one that says actresses can’t be shown onscreen unless their hair is covered—and started wondering how anyone who lived there could tell a meaningful vampire story without showing the requisite orgasmic neck biting or arterial sprays. Besides, hadn’t Michael Almeryda already done something similar with 1994’s Nadja?
Still, I thought there might be something exciting about watching a skillful, creepy contemporary feminist horror parable that had to play by the rules of the American cinema during its Hays Code heyday. However, Girl begins with a surprising and shocking dose of sex and gore that upended everything I thought I knew about Iran and the movies. That is, until I discovered that the English-born Amirpour used Taft, California as a geographic stand-in for Iran. Turns out she didn’t need to worry about censorship after all.
The locational ambiguity of the fictional Bad City, Iran, fits Amirpour’s slow, lovely-to-look-at feature debut. Its nodded-out vibe lets it slowly float into an as-yet-undiscovered fictional space somewhere between the abandoned Detroit theaters of Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and the chilly Scandinavian hovels of Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In. Highly aestheticized yet highly scuzzy—the story takes place in one of those broken cities where people dump corpses in open pits—Girl’s secret weapon is its sense of resigned playfulness, which wouldn’t be out of place in an old Peanuts cartoon. It may not be It Follows or The Babadook, but like its unforgettable image of an undead girl in a chador cruising down a dimly lit street on a skateboard, it’s an encouraging sign of life and fresh new blood.