She alone breathes new life into the undead

Rome Shadanloo (left) floats through a characteristically atmospheric club scene.  Courtesy Kino Lorber
Rome Shadanloo (left) floats through a characteristically atmospheric club scene. Courtesy Kino Lorber

BY SEAN EGAN  |  Just like it’s namesake monster, it appears the vampire flick can’t be killed.

Reaching market saturation seems impossible for these movies, so major studios and indie auteurs alike continue to pump out new vampiric variations at a steady clip. This is usually achieved by appending (increasingly strange) subgenre labels to the standard vampire flick — from mumblecore dark comedy to prep-school dramedy, chances are a bloodsucker has been shoehorned in at some point.

Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is assured and original

It takes quite a lot to set your film apart in this overpopulated landscape, so it’s no small feat that Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” does precisely that. It’s an independent, western and noir-tinged, New Wave influenced, Iranian language horror-romance vampire movie. Got all that?

Impressively, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” pretty handily manages to pull off this unwieldy list of genres that can be applied to it. Much of the credit goes to first time writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour. Not content to simply check off boxes, she synthesizes her influences and genre tropes into something genuinely new. For a debut feature, it’s remarkably assured, distinctive and original.

Set in the quasi-ghost town of “Bad City,” the movie tells the story of a nameless vampire, in the form of a beautiful young woman, as she stalks the streets at night, spying on the city’s morally conflicted denizens — looking for either prey, or perhaps just human connection. A parallel plot focuses on Arash, a good-natured young man, dealing with his drug-addicted father and forming ties to Bad City’s criminal underworld. When the two eventually cross paths, they develop a strange relationship, and their union reverberates throughout Bad City.

Shot in dynamic black and white and accompanied by a synth-heavy Iranian rock ‘n roll soundtrack, the film creates a dark and super-stylized atmosphere that’s alternately eerie and romantic. This atmosphere is both the film’s strongest asset and biggest flaw. While it allows the viewer to become totally immersed in its world, it’s also leaned on a little too heavily when the narrative becomes too thin.

The effortlessly cool Sheila Vand transfixes, as a nameless vampire who prowls Bad City.    Courtesy Kino Lorber
The effortlessly cool Sheila Vand transfixes, as a nameless vampire who prowls Bad City. Courtesy Kino Lorber

But, to its immense credit however, when “A Girl Walks Home” is on, there really is nothing else quite like it. It’s a very deliberately paced, slow burn of a movie. Amirpour’s shots are meticulously framed, and she often favors impressive long takes and extended dialogue-free sequences that add to the mood. At best, the slow nature of the film produce scenes of palpable, building dread or unexpected, disarming beauty — or better still, both at the same time, as in a particularly moving and tense bedroom scene set to “Death” by White Lies. Unfortunately, this also makes certain scenes (usually those that focus on the human conflict, sans vampire) drag in ways unjustified by their narrative contributions.

Part of this could be blamed on the secondary characters being fairly one note and not well defined — an unfortunate horror genre convention that would have been better left behind. Still, the acting is uniformly excellent, and goes a long way to filling in the sparseness of the script. As Arash, Arash Marandi is suitably charming, and provides a good audience surrogate. Dominic Rains is also entertaining in the role of a greasy, tatted up high-level drug dealer/pimp with an inflated sense of self — promptly establishing himself as a character audiences will love to hate.

The film really belongs to Sheila Vand though, and the rest of the talented cast can’t help but pale in comparison. As the vampire, she’s an absolutely transfixing presence, even during the long stretches in which she doesn’t speak (here, the script’s lack of backstory for the vampire adds to the mystique).

Vand is effortlessly cool throughout, and manages to be both a creature of unspeakable menace and a lonely, vulnerable figure depending on what the script calls for. Her use of body language and her expressive eyes help to create a character that is thoroughly otherworldly, but also intensely familiar and sympathetic. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Vand is up to the challenge and turns in a haunting performance that anchors the film. The whole film in fact, is a tricky balancing act, and it mostly gets everything right.

If it falls short of greatness, it’s not for a lack of trying — and the results onscreen are always fascinating to watch. Any flaws are easily overlooked by the uniqueness of the vision, the impressive filmmaking craft, and the high quality acting on display.

In “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Ana Lily Amirpour has managed to make vampire flicks feel fresh again, and that alone would make it worth seeking out. That fact that it’s this good is just a delightful bonus.

Written & Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Runtime: 107 min.
Farsi with English subtitles
Opens Nov. 21
At the IFC Center
323 Ave. of the Americas (btw. W. Third & Fourth Sts.)
Info: 212-924-7771 or ifccenter.com

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