All it took were three words to reel me in “Iranian Vampire Western”- ok, and a deliciously neo-gothic looking still of a female vampette donning a burka styled headdress. Something new, something different, at last! So it would come to be that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night became one of my most anticipated releases of 2014- and into 2015 when the opportunity (not for the want of trying) finally arose for me to see it. Of course this came with much anticipation, and that’s probably never a good thing. But then I should kick myself for allowing to get drawn in by a tagline- because scratch beneath the surface of this ‘First Iranian Vampire Western’ marketing, and we find a film that was shot in California and boasts Hollywood actor Elijah Wood on its board of producers; things suddenly take on a new light.
A little on the director Ana Lily Amipour; born in England, and then raised in the USA (Miami) it is interesting that as a filmmaker she focuses on her Iranian roots as a foundation for her feature length debut. This is realised through the use of Persian language (with English subtitles) and some thematic musical accompaniment throughout the piece. Personally, not having any frame of reference to Iranian culture, the overall theme I picked up on, beyond this, was the montage of Westernised ‘cool’ elements that dominate the look and feel of the piece. In fact the feature appears to become so hung up on this subset of elements it threatens to wander into Quentin Tarantino territory at times- albeit paying homage to the Breakfast Club generation and an indie music vibe instread of the Grindhouse circuit. The QT influence is most apparent when it comes to the ‘Western’ part of the three pronged promise which takes the form of soundtrack and some desert shots here and there; with a cool looking 50’s car drifting around in it Russ Meyer style. The pacing, however, stays firmly in tune with the indie shoegazing pop music that leads the musical backdrop and so it never goes that far; instead choosing to brood in its own sense of self-indulgence and pretty monochrome cinematography as it drifts whimsically on by. Set in the ghost town Bad City the core values pay no relation to anything based in reality- instead harking back to its original graphic novel format and comic book approach- thus creating the boundaries of a fantastical canvass, where anything is possible. This is used to evolve a tone that becomes dominated by the theme of isolation, in line with the key script elements. This proves to be both a great strength- when it works- but also the film’s biggest flaw; as it is often difficult to grasp anything of substance from the meandering plot line.
As far as the story goes the narrative is split into two seperate parts. We have The Girl (Sheila Vand) a lone figure and vampire, who stalks victims at night while wearing a headdress and scooting along on a skateboard. A primal figure, the ultimate outsider, and a role in which actress Vand (Argo) becomes a bit of an icon for the piece. Although able to rip through a man’s jugular in an instant, The Girl proves to be socially awkward in the presence of others, and has very little dialogue as a result. Then we have the male lead Arash (Arash Marandi) good at heart but forced to find money to fund his drug addicted father, he stumbles into the right place at the right time. The rest of the characters are filled with prostitutes, drug dealers and street people- with the bulk of the piece being deliberately underpopulated. When The Girl and Arash meet, however, we get the story strands join into a whole; two outsiders coming together in an offbeat pairing that allows an unorthodox love story to develop. What this becomes reminiscent of, instantly, is the original Let the Right One in (2008); especially when you consider the key meeting scenes in both pictures contain dialogue surrounding the vampire being cold and the (unsuspecting) human counterpart wanting to warm their newly acquired undead friend. In both cases it is an act of kindness that becomes a catalyst for intimacy and friendship. In that respect A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t perhaps so original than would be first apparent and could be considered to follow some of the same facets of its Swedish predecessor, while exploring some of the same key themes.
Stylistically the film is gorgeous. But then like anything filmed in black and white, with the use of the right key lighting, framing and composition, it becomes easy on the eye. It is a shame that this is where the feature gets tangled up in its own ponderous nature. Because there are large parts of the narrative where literally nothing happens- other than the camera lingering on set-pieces in a deliberately artful manner; on this level it could be argued we have yet another modern-day art-house-cum-horror effort, possibly aimed at those in the young intellectual crowd. The deep and meaningful subtext of isolation, disconnected existence and fragile relationships, mixed with the pop culture cool aesthetic present as a hipster’s wet dream. Where this sits in the context of the traditional genre overall is yet to be decided. But this only becomes an issue if you want to argue it as a genre piece at all; given the scattering of horror aspects demonstrated tend to sit second place in a narrative governed by a warped love story and context that poses existential questions to its audience.
Maybe I am being unfair. I am sure many of those who have penned the gushing reviews of this film would say so, but I try to be realistic. I think on balance A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, shows some promise from a first time director; there are poignant moments to discover, the luscious soundtrack pushes things up a couple of notches and there is some vision to be seen. Overall, however, it was disappointing; never living up to its hype (but when do they?) and slightly too laborious in its own fascination with creating a certain visual quality to become anything other than a wispy vision of something that could have been a lot more substantial.