Into the dark

A welcome return to spooky atmosphere in the vampire genre

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Opens Friday, March 6.Starring Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

I’ve always thought that vampire movies worked best utilizing a palette of shadows and moonlight—as in the early black-and-white undead classics like Nosferatu and Universal’s Dracula films, and even European entries like Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932, France/Denmark) on up through Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960, Italy).

Now add Brit-born Iranian writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. While not the tightest of narratives, the film is still a welcome return to the vampire as a haunting figure of darkness rather than that of sparkly pop-fiction manqué.

Bad City is a post-apocalyptic backwater that can’t afford color. Cloaked in neo-noir darkness and baptized in blood, its flesh punctured by the fangs of oil derricks and slashed with dry riverbeds choked with corpses, it is a squalid ghetto of quiet desperation shushed by sleeping suburbs. The streets are patrolled by The Girl (Sheila Vand), who prowls the night dressed in a chador and a Breton stripe top; a Persian Audrey Hepburn with fangs. She’s an exterminating angel who eats bad men and scares small boys straight, but softens for broken women and wayward young men.

One night, rolling down the predawn streets on a skateboard in a cloak flapping like batwings-cum-superheroine cape in the night breeze, The Girl is paused by the sight of a zonked-out Arash (Arash Marandi), dressed as Dracula and caught like a moth by a suburban streetlight. Arash is a landscaper of Purgatory whose new sideline in dealing ecstasy goes astray when he samples his own wares at an underground rave before his meet-cute with The Girl. And then …

Like a dark cloak, A Girl Walks Home Alone in the Dark is draped with its influences—from genre brethren to spaghetti westerns to juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s—while confidently maintaining its own identity. But the marketing is a bit of misdirection; this isn’t exactly an Iranian outfit. The streets of Bad City are actually Taft, Calif., and the cast is composed of Iranian ex-pats. As such, Bad City is neither Iran nor America, but a Farsi-speaking fever dream that lurks in the shadows between the two disparate worlds. The style is Sin City meets Jim Jarmusch.

Eschewing the machine-gun editing of contemporary Western cinema, Amirpour instead goes for languid long takes and studied composition, taking the slow-burn approach (which allows the infrequent bursts of violence to hold more resonance). And as a former DJ, Amirpour also drops the needle on a great soundtrack ranging from Middle Eastern fusion beats to underground Iranian rock and spaghetti-western-infused stylings.

Ultimately, A Girl Walks Home Alone in the Dark is a welcome return to traditional undead values, with an emphasis on understated wit, atmosphere and the power of unspoken communication rather than the current brand of banal blithering, power chords and horn-dog vamping of the likes of Twilight and True Blood.