The Parasite’s Shadow in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

“Be A Good Boy.”

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire film in several veins. Yes, it features a literal vampire, but it also characterizes each figure in a vampiric light. Everyone is a parasite; everyone feeds off the living. But they each feed differently, and that distinction is the most interesting thing about the film.

Ana Lily Amirpour’s film takes place in a non-descript Iranian town known only as Bad City. There are no laws or consequences here, and the dead are thrown into a pit just outside of town. Despite its ambiguous location and era, things look familiar in Bad City. There are cars, drug dealers, and skateboards, so its close enough to be both modern and uncertain. This atmosphere plays into the film’s ongoing vampiric commentary, as it switches between old and new genres, people, and tropes quite frequently. For instance, the film presents a new kind of cinematic vampire, one who actively re-evaluates what it means to be a vampire and a woman.

It focuses on an Iranian woman who kills abusers and is fixated on avant-garde music and ‘youth culture’, even stealing a skateboard from a child. I say ‘youth culture’ because although the Girl (she is given no name in the film) seems like a young woman, we do not know how old she is, who turned her, or why she specifically targets men. That said, the film also references older vampire movies and sets up this strange comparison between the Girl and more traditional vampires. When Arash meets the Girl under a streetlight, he is dressed up as Dracula and he introduces himself as that iconic figure. The Girl has no idea that Arash has just returned from a costume party, and so she is confused and a little intrigued at his fake vampire identity. Arash is performing the typical vampire part, all dressed up like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and so he represents everything the Girl contrasts. He is old, she is new. Even the lights above Arash and the Girl create these exaggerated crosses, which quietly references an older and more established trope. When Arash later sends the Girl a note, he calls himself Dracula, as though Dracula himself is summoning her. We could even read this note as a negotiation between old and new, as ‘Dracula’, a traditional/cinematic/recognizable vampire is meeting up with a new kind of vampire, specifically a more contemporary and self-aware kind. The Girl might appear vaguely bat-like, especially in shots where she is gliding on her skateboard, but she never crosses into stereotype. That is one of the reasons that the Girl can hunt, as the men she encounters are not used to perceiving women as threats, let alone as vampires.

“These things happen…”

There are multiple scenes where male characters explain to women that being a woman is dangerous. In one early scene, we see a TV presenter explaining to women that they should be prepared for their husbands to leave them and to face poverty, but his warning gets cut off right before he explains what they can do to prepare. That essentially summarizes what the men do in this film, as they tell women they are in danger while still putting them in danger by not being helpful. Take the scene where Arash fixes Shaydah’s TV. He tells her to leave the room because her parents would think it was improper for a young woman to be alone with someone in her bedroom. The real reason Arash wants Shaydah to leave the room is because he wants to steal her earrings, and so he is not actually concerned about her modesty. Her parents are also bound to discover what happened and blame Shaydah for leaving the room and her earrings. Therefore, what initially seems helpful is just damaging.

Modesty is an interesting theme in the film, as the Girl is sexualized by men in the film, but she is not the succubus vampire type we see in other vampire films. There is an ongoing tradition that vampire women are extremely seductive, more so than their male counterparts. Dracula is a fine example of this trope, as the vampire Brides and Lucy are the most sexualized figures in the text, and they are killed both for their vampirism and dangerous sexuality. The Girl consciously opposes this image, as she is rather fascinated with touch, but not in a sexual way. She rips off fingers, peels throats open, and shutters when someone hugs her. She also dresses differently than the other women in the film, as she is always shown in a long-sleeve stripe shirt, covered head, and long pants, with no skin other than her hands and face exposed. The film costumes her as an older and more conservative version of femininity, she does not even have her ears pierced. But the Girl also struggles with this model, as she does not judge other women, she is interested in modern music, and asks Arash to pierce her ears. It’s more likely that the Girl is unsocial than overly modest.

The Girl wears makeup in a distorted way, as though she only wants to be seen from a distance. A block away, her victims see a shadow with coloured lips and dark shaded eyes. The film’s poster similarly exaggerates her lips and eyes, making them the only features with definition. But we see during the scene where she puts on makeup that it’s imprecise- her lips are crooked. The makeup itself doesn’t really matter, as she is simply using the makeup because of the associations it has and the way it dresses her. By the time people get close and see how blurred her makeup is, it is too late. There is also the fact that the Girl is given no name, and so she remains this anonymous figure, away from speculation. Without a name, she also stands in for any girl or woman.  

“Our Friend Told Us to Find Dracula.”

Returning to this old versus new vampire theme, the film sets up a specific set of expectations through its title and black and white format. The title initially feels like a warning for women, the very thing women are told not to do and the thing which precedes so many horrible stories about violence against women. The phrasing also suggests that it is the woman’s fault for being attacked, as it focuses on the act of walking alone at night instead of the attack which often follows this wording. In other words, it initially seems like the title will continue to use this older vampire model, as almost every vampire film features a scene where a young woman is murdered by a vampire while walking alone at night. These older vampire films typically suggest that the woman’s death is her own fault because she was out walking. They thus hold her accountable rather than her murderer. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night evokes this image and asks us to consider just how ridiculous and damaging this tradition and focus is. In other words, it asks us to consider why the phrase “a girl walks home alone at night” is such an uncomfortable thing, and to recognize where that discomfort comes from. The film goes on to trouble this victim-blaming horror trope by suggesting that the traditional abuser figures are the ones in danger. The film argues that men should be afraid of the girl who walks alone at night, and thus reverses our expectations of this phrase. The film’s black and white format also adds to this reading, as it presents things in literal black and white (good and bad), but it also plays back to these older vampire films, often shot in black and white. The only middle ground figures – stuck between good and bad, old and new – are Arash and the Girl, as they both do terrible things but are slightly justified. Perhaps that is why they leave Bad City at the end of the film, and why things remain unresolved, forever caught between good and bad rather than settling on either.  

It’s noteworthy that not a single woman dies in this film, especially when compared to other vampire movies. Multiple men do, and their bodies are thrown into a pit and ignored. We see this pit near the beginning of the film, and its one of the first moments where we realize that something quite horrible has happened to this town. The music unwinds as we see it, playing static and slowing the film down. We even hear flies buzzing around the dead, although the bodies are only shown from a distance. We do not return to the dead in the film either, which is rather funny given that the vampire genre is about the literal return of the dead. The second a character dies, the film refuses to show anything specific about them, even when Arash’s father (Hossein) dies, and he visits the body. We see Hossein’s head, but none of the wounds, as though he is in another drug-fueled sleep. Other than that moment, we see bodies being cast into the pit, and then never seen again. We do, however, see the items that they had with them when they died. The Girl steals Saeed’s jewelry, Arash steals Saeed’s drugs, and so forth. It is almost as though these items are the person, or at least, the only visual reminder that they existed. The wristwatch, for instance, is synonymous with Saeed, and any time we see it we are reminded that Saeed was murdered, and that the Girl stole his watch.

“You Don’t Remember Wanting.”

The cat is perhaps the greatest example of this stealing emblem, as he arguably steals every scene. People keep passing the cat along, as though it brings bad luck. It passes between multiple figures until he ultimately leaves the city with the Girl and Arash. Hossein even accuses the cat of being his dead wife, and to be fair, there is something humanoid and strange about it. The cat seemingly summons the Girl when Atti is attacked, and the camera sets up a relationship between them by focusing on the cat’s eyes and then the Girl. The film never explains this moment, but there is some suggestion that the cat is connected to everything, and might be Arash’s mother, although as Saeed explains, it is a male cat.  

The first scene in the film is arguably it’s most perplexing. Why does a vampire film begin in daylight with a literal cat burglary? There is no explanation for why Arash steals a cat, or even who he stole a cat from, and yet it is the very first scene in the film. I think this initial moment sets up the films commentary on stealing life, as each of the characters steal life from others in some way, making each slightly vampiric. When Arash discovers Saeed’s dead body, he steals Saeed’s briefcase and becomes the town’s new drug dealer. He essentially takes over Saeed’s life by taking the objects associated with this lifestyle. The Girl does a more literal version of this, as she drains Saeed both literally and financially, stealing his jewelry, wallet, and CDs. The film is thus interested in parasitic relationships, and it uses vampirism as a symbolic demonstration of this. For example, during the costume party, Shaydah puts an ecstasy pill on Arash’s tongue, explaining that the “pill is nothing without you. It needs you” to exist. This implies that the drug is a parasite, just like the other figures in the film. Saeed has a parasitic relationship with Arash and Atti, as although he is supposed to give them drugs or money in exchange, we do not see either of these things. Instead, he threatens and takes something in each of these scenes, making his relationships entirely one-sided. And yet, just like the drug, he needs them to be a parasite in the first place. There is also Hossein’s relationship with his son, as he constantly insults and uses his son because of his addiction. These parasitic relationships end violently, and so its hard to speculate where the Girl and Arash’s relationship will go.

“If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?”

However, the greatest parasite in the film is never shown. We do not know who turned the Girl into the vampiric parasite we know. Her tendency to target abusers suggests that it was a male vampire who assaulted her, but the film refuses to name or give him any identity as it is more interested in his victim, and her life afterwards. And yet Bad City is a parasitic place, as we repeatedly see these metallic oil pumps draining the earth, moving up and down like fangs retracting and expanding into the dirt. Everything and everyone are a parasite in the film, waiting to touch or pop other people. We get this scene where an unnamed figure plays with a balloon, bouncing it up and down on a string. The film then cuts to a shot of Arash’s eggs, as he quietly bounces his fork on the yolk before eventually piercing it. Each of these sequences threatens to pop or pierce things, just like the Girl pierces people’s necks. But there is some taunting involved, this dance beforehand. The audience knows that it is only a matter of time before the balloon, the yolk, or the abuser pops, and waiting for that inevitable thing is uncomfortable. Take the scene where Saeed sticks his finger into the Girl’s mouth. We know just based on the poster that the Girl is a vampire, and so we already know what is going to happen to Saeed, it is only a matter of time. Perhaps that is a commentary on the film’s title, and the seemingly unavoidable violence that ensues a woman who walks home alone at night. But, as the film suggests, that inevitable pop may very well be the throat of some ignorant, spineless, and ultimately useless abuser who follows a lone woman at night.