Arash (Arash Marandi) is suffering problems here in Bad City, a region of Iran that is getting quieter and more abandoned by the day. His main issue is with his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), who is an inveterate heroin addict, only caring about the next fix his son can secure for him, but lacking any other affection that Arash can see. Events are coming to a head now that Hossein has gotten into trouble with the local head pimp and drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains), and to make matters worse, he’s not interested in the money Arash has been handing over, he wants his flash car that the young man spent years as a television repairman to collect the cash for. But there is another person in the city who could help…
Another person, or indeed vampire, for director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut after a selection of shorts, including a version of this. She was immediately pounced upon by the tastemakers as someone worth our interest, though after watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night there were grumbling accusations of style over substance, but what style it was, shot in gleaming black and white like an Iranian Rumble Fish, finding imagery of striking depth and captivating contrasts in a place that really did not look otherwise particularly inviting. Basically, Bad City was a dump, although it wasn’t an Iranian dump, for Amirpour was an American filmmaker, and this was an American film, made in California on a low budget but passing well enough for those who had not been to the Middle East.
Not that it felt like there was a specifically Iranian take on the traditional horror movie, as there was an alien quality to the proceedings that didn’t belong to any one region, more the location of a special movie land that would be recognisable as the kind of place a character like the unnamed bloodsucker, played by Sheila Vand, would prefer as a haunt. Indeed, the fact that the city appears distinctly underpopulated could easily be explained by dint of the fact she had been cutting down the number of citizens there simply by feasting on one every night, leaving the rest of those still with us oblivious. Certainly Arash, who takes a tentative romantic interest in the Girl, doesn’t come across as someone who knows what he’s letting himself in for, and even by the end it’s not clear how far over his head he has become.
It was safe to say if the plot wasn’t interesting you, sit back and drink in those visuals and you could appreciate Amirpour’s way with the photography. Arash dresses as Count Dracula for a costume party halfway through the movie, the only indication anyone in the city is actually aware what a vampire is, even if it is simply a fictional one, and the monochrome appearance alludes to the works on the subject that Nosferatu or the Tod Browning-directed, Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula of the first half of the twentieth century made such an impression with the world’s audiences. Even the Girl’s outfit, apparently traditional for a Muslim woman, can double as a cape the Transylvanian would have been proud to sport as he went on his evening rounds, and yes, she does sprout fangs when she needs to feed.
While there was a degree of violence as the Girl goes about her hunt, there was also a weirdly restrained air to much of this, adding to the oppressive atmosphere yet additionally setting up the approach of the film to its characters. You’ve heard of the male gaze in movies, that essentially masculine look at the accoutrements of the production, usually with regard to the females involved, yet here there was a marked female gaze, and that married well with the notion we were looking at the scenes with a vampire’s demeanour. Time after time we were invited to take in the innocent victims, and at times not so innocent ones, with a decision to regard them either as meat, or as a means to an end at least to satiate some hunger or other, be it for blood – the references to drug addiction now de rigueur in vampire fiction by this point – or for something more sexual, then further, to affection and companionship. It was provocative, no doubt about it, even if any themes tended to be swamped by the immersive appearance.