It takes some conviction and more than a little courage to make a vampire film, especially as a debut writer-director and a woman of color. Even if you believe we’re beyond traditional distinctions between “high” and “low” art, a notion that the Oscars have only started to acknowledge in the past few years or so, the very currency of a term like “elevated horror” suggests that many of those involved in making, reviewing, and studying film still cling to the idea that genre movies are somehow inferior.
It’s hard enough for an independent film to get attention, but when that film is shot in black-and-white, is mostly silent except for a sparse dialogue in Persian (which for English-speaking viewers means subtitles), and stars Iranian ex-pat actors, the last thing you’d expect most filmmakers to do is also make their project a horror movie. About vampires no less.
On the flip side, consider the challenges that director faces in trying to please an audience who loves horror films but who has already devoured dozens and dozens of vampire movies. That director puts herself up against all the time-honored classics in that genre. She invites comparison to “Nosferatu” (1922) with its stunning German expressionist cinematography and its iconic images of Max Schreck standing on the boat or the shadow of his long, creepy fingers as he closes in on his prey. She places her own vampire in juxtaposition to the classic Draculas of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman. (Though none of those old guys can match the stunning image of Sheila Vand’s girl vampire riding a skateboard down a darkened street while her chador billows behind her like Dracula’s cape.) This new director even challenges herself to match the surprising freshness of the relatively recent vampire masterpiece “Let the Right One In” (2008).
Even against all those odds, Ana Lily Amirpour performs cinematic miracles with her feature debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014). This film is absolutely brilliant!
If you haven’t watched this one before, you’re in for a delicious treat. If you have already seen it, I invite you to look at it with fresh eyes and discover it anew.
As you drink this film in, you’ll want to pay special attention to all the subtle nods to Hollywood films from bygone eras – the Spaghetti Western opening sequence (including the credits), the bad boy’s James Dean hairstyle, white tee shirt, and leather jacket, and the film noir grittiness of the deserted industrial setting, complete with oil wells pumping up and down in the background. Amirpour can write a love letter to her forebears in old Hollywood with the best of them.
You’ll also want to look at all the amazing colors in this movie. Yes, as I already mentioned, this is filmed in old-school black-and-white, but that doesn’t stop Amirpour and the wonderful cinematographer Lyle Vincent, from making us see colors.
Pay attention to the characters and how much they say without saying anything. The tilt of a head, the hint of a smile, a glance this way or that, a shift in posture, or a gesture with the hand. In their way, all of these things communicate more than their spoken words ever could.
Take note of the film’s soundtrack and how particular songs evoke time, place, and emotion. Watch how the actors’ movements are choreographed with the music. Amirpour was a DJ before she started directing films, so she’s experienced with using music to create space and define an atmosphere.
Finally, you want to observe how the different generations relate to each other, how social class is defined, and how gender roles are constructed and deconstructed. All of these elements weave together into a profound and provocative commentary on the individual and interconnected worlds we inhabit.
Be warned that the film can seem slow at times, but instead of becoming impatient with it, try to spend those extra lingering moments by looking for little details you might have otherwise missed.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is a movie to devour all at once the first time and then to revisit so you can relax and savor every bloody drop.