Vampires thrive in obscurity.
Hiding out in remote countries. picking off superstitious peasants under the cover of night. They mask their faces with high collars and wrap their bodies in capes that encircle them like a pair of bat wings at rest.
Draped in a black chador, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s vampire only looks to be cut from the same cloth. But part of what makes director Ana Lily Amirpour’s “vampire spaghetti Western” -- her 2014 debut -- so exciting is how it subverts our expectations.
We know how how a vampire is supposed to look and act -- Count Dracula in 2020’s BBC production -- but that's not the case here, making it one of the best genre movies of the decade.
Set in an Iranian locale called Bad City, Amirpour’s film traces the relationship that forms between Sheila Vand’s Girl and Arash Marandi’s Arash. While Amirpour sprinkles in a few details to give Bad City some local flavor -- characters flavor their tea with misri sticks, they watch Iranian TV, Arash pulls off a robbery by using cultural expectations of modesty (“What if your parents knew you were alone in your room with a boy?”) to get his target out of the way -- her film feels like it could be set anywhere.
Bad City is an instantly recognizable noir landscape, a place where prostitutes dream of saving up enough money to get out, and hipsters wearing standard-issue Springsteen white T’s & jeans blow their savings on pristine Ford Thunderbirds. Shot in southern California, Amirpour and cinematographer Lyle Vincent use Kern County's churning oil rigs and the Mojave desert to create a bleak, industrial environment around the city.
Every vampire has their type, and for Vand, her go-to blood donors are Bad Men. She reveals her M.O. when she corners a little boy in an alleyway and asks him “Are you a good boy? Are you a good boy or not?” with a voice so hard-edged it could cleave a diamond. We see what happens to the people who say no.
Whereas Dracula oozes European charm and licentiousness, Vand’s Girl is cool and diffident. Her face projects a withdrawn, submissive air -- a kind of false meekness that makes her a genuinely unnerving presence. A Girl Walks Home is that rare vampire movie that actually makes the Twilight scenario of “Will the vampire eat their beloved?” work.
We’re never quite sure what Vand’s character wants or how she feels about the people around her, which infuses every scene she shares with another character with palpable tension. When she tilts back Arash’s head during their slow dance to White Lies’ “Death” in her basement, exposing his neck in full, we have no idea whether she’s going to kiss him or gorge herself on his blood. It’s a testament to Amirpour’s filmmaking and Vand’s performance that both scenarios are equally plausible.
What’s even more surprising is the effectiveness of the romance at the heart of the story. “I’ve done bad things,” the Girl tells Arash at the end of the film’s most emotionally affecting and erotic scene -- a date by the oil field where Arash pierces her ears with a heated safety pin. Piercing her ear with the pin, The Girl’s eyes widen and fangs jut out; it’s one of the few moments where she actually shows how she feels.
In so many vampire films, being impaled is the thing that kills them -- in this one, it helps her live.
This essay is part of the Inverse Singularity Awards, a critics' poll and essay collection about the best genre movies of the 2010s.
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