Thrillhers is a column that takes a look at female directors in horror and how their movies are shaped by the socio-cultural implications of being female.
Greetings, Rooster Illusion fans! Sarah from SciFridays here, back from hiatus and proud to introduce: Thrillhers, a brand new column! To kick things off, let’s take a look at Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an Iranian vampire film.
It would be safe to say that Amirpour, an Iranian-American born in England and raised in Miami, has created an amazingly unique movie that she self-described as a ‘vampire spaghetti western’. Filmed in black and white and featuring a jaunty opening song, the film is set in a fictional Iranian town called Bad City. Bad City is not the bustling bazaar-esque Iranian setting you’ve seen in the news – but rather like a small American town (shot, in fact, in California). Persian signs and graffiti cover this starkly familiar American town. Within minutes a sense of ‘all is not well’ is established as a man walks past a drainage ditch brimming with bodies. Bad City, as the name might suggest, is afflicted by prostitution, drugs, and gangs. It also happens to have a small vampire problem.
While researching Iranian culture for this article, I came across this set of question/responses that seemed to indicate, most of all, that Iranians, as a people, can vary extremely in how they treat women, but the government is still conservative. For example, women must wear a headscarf in public (in A Girl, the only woman in ‘strict’ traditional hijab is our vampire). I would venture to say that most Americans would view Iran as a strict Islamic state where women suffer under the oppression of Muslim law. Now, while it is extremely true that there are families and politicians that abide by these generalizations, it’s clear that it would be irresponsible and naive to apply a broad oppressive lens over the Middle East. A Girl is not a rebel film exposing the oppression of Islamic culture – it is a film that exists in that world. For context’s sake, Iran is a predominantly Shia Islamic state – and although the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims does not appear to influence this film, it is important to take into account the effects that Islam has on social interactions.
It is also important to note that any feminist issues presented in A Girl are initially presented by men as a reason to do something nefarious. Our handyman (Arash) character points out that a young woman should not be in the room alone with a man so that he can consider stealing her earrings – the drug lord/pimp points out to his prostitute that she is getting old and she should desire children and then exploits her vulnerability and need for money to survive. Both scenes feature the characters moving from an outside space (a lawn and a parking lot respectively) into a closed space (a room and a parked car). From my American perspective, space is much more important in Iran when considering a society with public rules and etiquette. Iran is part of the cluster of countries where one’s behavior can differ wildly behind closed doors, and not in the same sense that you might goof off around your friends in your room or whatever. All of the killing and nefarious business take place indoors, for example. The vampire’s room is full of trinkets and memoirs like a teenager. Posters, ticket stubs, records and pictures of celebrities line the walls. Here we meet her without hijab, we see her in the tub, we see her dancing and applying makeup. Amirpour is very clear about this differentiation, with the slight exception of the ear piercing scene, which I think was intentional. That is the only time two characters interact with that kind of intimacy outdoors, and I think it helps the ending.
There is some amazing duality in A Girl. The first kill mimics the exploitation of the prostitute by the drug lord in a deliciously vengeful/creepy way. In this way, I felt a lot of similarities to the film Teeth, where the justice is poetic, but not rage-driven. Later, the vampire very literally mimics the people she encounters. Arash dresses un-ironically as a vampire for a costume party and ends up closely resembling our vampire in Hijab as he saunters down the street after taking ecstasy. “I’m Dracula,” he states sleepily to her, “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” The following morning, Arash glides fork tines over his over-easy egg, teasing the surface tension of the yolk but never piercing it, just as the vampire had done to him the night prior. There are countless visual hints and clues throughout the film, countered with tight and drastically angled shots. I felt like the cinematography played with the intimacy and censorship. Every reveal and shadow felt extremely deliberate and meaningful.
I got over halfway through this movie before I realized there was no plot. No one has a goal, really. Maybe Arash first wanted to make sure his uncle wasn’t in debt, but after that he just kinda likes the vampire and tries to get to know her. It’s not a romantic movie, though, to be clear. To qualify it simply as a slice-of-life film wouldn’t do it justice, so I suppose I could see the spaghetti-western clarification being necessary. It is a quiet movie with calm gravitas. There are lighter moments, but don’t expect to laugh.
The soundtrack is worth at least a quick mention, as it features both Persian pop of many genres as well as your typical horror fanfare, this time taking the form of rhythmic drumming or soft brushing of cymbals, both evoking traditional Middle Eastern music. If you’d like, you can check it out here.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a neat little film that fits many genres because it has to. This is the kind of movie where you can tell the director let the process shape the film and didn’t let the concept run into the ground. It’s elegant and contemplative, rarely aggressive but it sticks with you. Beautifully shot and expertly executed, I’ll be looking forward to Amirpour’s future projects.
Questions about the new column? Hate mail? Suggestions for future films?