The scare-queen at the heart of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a new "vampire Western" film set in Iran, is the exact opposite of your typical Hollywood horror villain. She's not named Freddy or Jason; she doesn't wield an axe, wear a mask, or gleefully interrupt tanned teen couples in mid-thrust. She's also not a mewling, red-lipped cat-woman or a crafty witch in a velvet hood.
Instead she's a young, hip Iranian played by Sheila Vand known simply as "The Girl." She rides a skateboard, and wears cute striped tees, and listens to indie rock, and plasters '80s posters across her walls. She's a big-eyed, blunt-banged killer with an occasional air of innocence that seems at odds with the self-proclaimed "bad things" she does. Specifically? She sucks men's blood. More specifically? She sucks bad men's blood.
Though slimy dudes—pimps, johns, drug-crazed fiends —are the pointed mark of this particular vampire's murderous wrath, the film's L.A.-based writer-director, Ana Lily Amirpour, didn't intend for the film to be a feminist statement—or a statement on anything at all. "I don't set specific targets [for my work] like that; it's more like poetry," she says.
Of course, Aminpour is aware of the ways in which A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night turns both traditional horror film tropes and everyday gender narratives on their heads. You know the ones: that predators are men and victims are women, or that a man would never feel scared or threatened by a pretty young woman trailing him in the dark. But in Bad City, the fictional Iranian oil town in which the film takes place, a man would be seriously remiss to underestimate that girl in the dark. "What's interesting about this girl and about people [in general] is that what you see is never what you get. You can have whatever [peaceful] bumper stickers on the back of your car, and then get out and shoot a dog," Amirpour says. "I'm interested in [exploring] expectations not being met... including preconceived notions of this girl and what she looks like, but also about everyone."
What's most interesting about The Girl is not just her sexist-expectation-busting–it's her successful all-around creepiness. Throughout the movie, she silently stalks men in the dark, and in one of the film's most loaded, cutting scenes, she ominously follows a clueless little boy into a dark park. When she abruptly leaps out to face him, she repeatedly asks, "Are you a good boy? Are you a good boy or not? Don't lie." When the terrified kid whimpers a yes, she bears her impressive fangs and threatens to rip his eyeballs out, instead settling on a warning: "Til the end of your life I'll watch you. Be a good boy."
Beyond all her sinister underlying warnings to the would-be bad men of the world, though, the vampire (who is never named and rarely speaks) is made up of an amalgam of very human qualities—darkness, loneliness, naiveté—that lend her significantly more complexity and weight than your average scary-movie antihero. Though one character remarks at how "cold" her undead skin feels to the touch, we catch occasional flashes of hope in her eyes, a palpable longing for connection. This manifests most clearly in her budding romantic-ish relationship with the film's other main character, Arash, a young, adorable James Dean type (played by Arash Marandi) who drives a '57 Thunderbird convertible and retains an aura of brooding hauntedness.
Arash, a gardener, lives a meandering existence in a messy house with an intense-eyed cat and an unstable drug-addict father, Hossein, who never got over the loss of his wife. (Spoiler: Hossein may or may not reach an untimely vampiric end after bullying a sad-eyed local prostitute in a motel room.) Arash struggles with aimlessness and nihilism. At one of his first nighttime rendezvous with the vampire, he gives her diamond earrings he stole from a client, then asks, "If there was a big storm coming now from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?"
Beautifully shot in black and white, the film's most enigmatic character is the mood itself—its ongoing undercurrent of grim foreboding. That vibe is enhanced by Amirpour's plentiful shots of sparse, dusty landscapes that evoke memories of old-school Westerns. Amirpour, who grew up watching classics with her dad like Once Upon a Time in the West and the Man With No Name trilogy, says she appreciates how Westerns are "all about tension ... you're just waiting for it to pop." She also likens the vampire at the center of her film to the notorious loner protagonists in Westerns. In Man With No Name, she remembers, "Clint Eastwood's character is this mysterious person that rolls into a small, weird town, and you don't know what his motives are or whether he's good or bad, and he doesn't say a lot. I see her in that way."
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which Amirpour expanded into a comic book as she was writing the screenplay, has few cheap thrills or extraneous gore. It runs deeper and stranger than that. Like 2008's chilling childhood-vampire-friendship film Let the Right One In, it effectively merges horror with tenderness; at its heart, beneath its layers of reclusion and hopelessness, it's a love story. Because after all, as Amirpour notes, isn't "love a kind of a horror movie" in itself?
"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" opened in New York on Friday and is currently expanding into theaters nationwide.