Movie Review: Feminist Iranian horror in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

A young boy walks down a desert street at night. He realizes that a figure is following him — a woman, clad in a black chador, gradually growing closer before eventually saying:

“Till the end of your life I’ll be watching you. Be a good boy.”

From the ghostly image of a young woman’s pale face to its haunting dialogue, Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is striking. The film was critically-acclaimed upon its release, but its subversive feminist narrative is particularly resonant now, in the context of the protests currently unfolding in Iran.

The young woman, played by Sheila Vand, is a vampire and credited in the film solely as The Girl. The black-and-white Persian-language film follows her story as it intersects with other marginal figures in their run-down desert town of Bad City, some of whom become her victims.

Mostly though, she targets men who target women: a haunting, empowering and morally-complex fantasy of female revenge. Amirpour takes the dread we associate with a young woman meeting a threatening man in the shadows at the edge of a streetlight and turns it on its head.

This is a welcome change from the way that Iranian women are commonly portrayed in media. Neoliberal feminist discourse frames Iranian women as victims in need of Western liberation, while the Iranian regime seeks to take away women’s power to dissent entirely. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night rejects both of these narratives: a powerful young woman who stalks the streets in a chador, serving her own uncanny variety of justice as she feasts on the blood of abusers.

However, the film does not present her story merely as a vigilante tale. Some of her victims are just that — seemingly innocent individuals who have happened to cross her path. This moral ambiguity allows audiences to appreciate The Girl not as a political symbol to degrade or to save, but as a complex character who creeps through the gray areas between eerie power and vulnerability.

Though its central character is a vampire, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not a straightforward horror film; Amirpour melds numerous genres, including spaghetti western, tender romance and social drama.

While there are supernatural elements, they are often portrayed as less frightening in the film than the threats faced by those on the margins, particularly women and Queer people.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an enthralling, atmospheric journey into the fringes of Iranian society — through a diasporic lens. Amirpour was born in England to Iranian parents. The film's fictional setting of Bad City is implied to be in Iran, but it was filmed in California due to the difficulty of filming in the country, speaking to the film's border-crossing ambiguity. Oil refineries loom over the emptied-out town, creating an atmosphere of decline and dislocation.

Bad City is nowhere; Bad City could be anywhere. The Girl could be in a northern Iranian oil town; she could be behind you in the alley as you walk home — as a protector, as a threat or as a witness.

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