A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is not your typical horror movie. It is not your typical movie in any sense, to be completely honest, but regardless — it is a great one.
Directed and written by Ana Lily Amirpour as her first feautre-lenght film, the 2014 made A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad in its original language, Persian) can be described as a thrilling romance as much as it can be described as an arthouse horror flick. A movie comprised of extremely familiar beats matched up in a completely alienating form, it is shot entirely in black and white, has few lines — that are all spoken in Farsi — in it, and is powered by the performances of a practically unknown cast. As an “Iranian vampire Western”, it is first of its kind, and thus exist on an uncharted territory of filmmaking that makes it extremely hard to be defined or placed within borders. It is also metatextual take upon voyeurism and surveillance thanks to its use of a single cat, but that is an absolutely different perspective of criticism that belongs to an absolutely different piece.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is also a movie that creates space for important conversations on issues such as conservatism, patriarchy, female rage, sexuality and cultural isolation.
To be completely honest, when I was thinking of a way to start the Women in Horror Month, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was not the first movie that came to my mind with the intention of writing a piece. It was neither the second, or the third: because in fact, it was never a horror movie in my mind — just a movie that used typical horror archetypes and tropes to literally subvert them at every chance and create a fantasy world of LSD-basedindu post-modernism and Lynchian movie-making. But somewhere along the way, in the deep ends of my writer-block that came upon the realization that It Follows was not the feminist outlook on sexuality politics and issues of bodily autonomy and consent, but rather just a great film; I decided to go into an entirely different direction, and turn what I at first thought that eliminated A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night from being on my list into the reason that it is now the opener of Woman in Horror month: the way it clashes things, concepts, ideas.
For those who haven’t watched it, the story, backed by VICE Films, follows our nameless protagonist of a chador-wearing, skateboarding vampire that preys on the abusive and violent men of the Bad City, a noir-inspired ghost-town full of drug addicts and prostitutes, which serves as a fictional Iranian somewhere — a neverland of time and space that hangs in the empty air. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a weird movie, and I know it seems that I am so hung up on the fact that this movie is not conventional, but it is truly a weird movie, from both Watsonian and Doylist perspectives, from its heroine of an ageless entity that is filled with self-inflicted guilt but also fund of civilians who are dressed as Dracula and are under the influence of drugs to its shooting location. It is also weird in the sense that it is a movie that fits the portrayal of what us, as consumers of twenty-first century, think of as feminist media, but it is not a feminist movie. Or at least, it is not advertised as one by neither its lead actress, Sheila Vand, or its director.
When asked about whether or not she had intended for the film to have feminist themes in it by New Republic’s Esther Breger in an interview of hers from 2014, Amirpour was quick and professional in her run from giving out a strict answer and rather asking whether or not if she had interpreted the movie as feminist to the interview. When given the answer of a resounding yes, she followed it by saying this:
“That probably says more about you than it does about me. A film is like a mirror. What I connect with in a movie is my own stuff. So consciously, no. It’s more about how surface are not what they seem. There’s more than meets the eye to people. It’s not just women, it’s everybody. Everybody in the world, in the film, in my mind, is much more than what you see on the surface. All people underneath have strange weird secrets inside and when you get to those things it makes you re-evaluate the outside and re-evaluate your assumptions. That’s what I’m interested. It’s not an -ism. All those things confine your thinking because they tell you, this is what it is, and then it’s done. I think everything just has to be considered in its own individual space and time.”
There might be a lot of different reasons as to why Amirpour was resilient in her quest to not define A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night as a feminist project: she might be thinking that feminism is a word that generally gets a bad reputation, she might be thinking that it is a restricting adjective, she might be thinking that it is not the place of the creator to give instructions as to how their creations should be perceived and examined. Those are all legitimate reasons on varying degrees, but none of them change the fact that this movie, like all other movies, is destined to be perceived and examined within the socio-political implications of its audience. Thus, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a feminist movie: because it needs to be a feminist movie to exist.
“Why is that?”, one might ask. A valid question.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night needs to be a feminist movie to exist as itself because it is, in its definitional and conceptual context, a movie about a female vampire who hunts men that are guilty of gender-based violence, that is written and directed in a patriarchal time and society, and is not shy of symbolisms that carry a lot of meaning in that very society. Even the name of it brings out a dichotomy on gender in our cultural movie: this movie is literally about a girl who walks alone at night, which is always talked about as something that is preyed on, preying upon people that usually prey upon those girls who walk home alone at night. The main character wears a chador, something so Islamic in the eyes of modern audience, but the movie has no religious contextualization of any kind in it and that said female character uses her sexuality to lure her victims into their gruesome deaths. It might not even be true that she wears a chador, just something that resembles a chador.
When looked from a perspective such as this one, Amirpour’s words about one’s perception of a movie being more about them than the movie itself becomes truer by the second. This is a problem that one might come across frequently if interested in contemporary consumption of media, because media is infinite and static in its existence and therefore it, or at least some part of it, is outdated in every second. There is not a single movie that can exist without being “something”, because every single story that is written is in its essence about something. Society and art are inseparable, even if art is just created for the art’s sake. As so, there is not a single mention of Islam or Muslims in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but it is still a movie that is important in the examination of Orientalism and conservatism. It is a messy issue.
On a fun (but undeniably important note) Amirpour’s own intention of creation feminist media or lack thereof it, and whether or not her movie can be deemed as feminist when she is not creating it with the intention of it being feminist, is one of the best contemporary examples to the never-ending discourse of how much of a body of work can be defined by its creators. On one hand, there is the French auteur theory, claiming that a creation is the signature of its mastermind; with its form and with its substance, and on the other hand, there is Roland Barthes’ death of the author argument; that there should not be a single fuck given about the intention of author. And that is not even taking the collaborative nature of movies, or their commercial reasonings, or the fact that they are undeniably a product of their environment into account. In the end, most of it doesn’t matter, too, if you’re not particularly interested in the (again) metatextual reality of a textual work: if you think that something is feminist, then it must be inspected through to perspective of feminist ideology in your eyes.
Going back to the reason behind my choice to choose this movie as the start of the Women in Horror Month, yes, I think that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a feminist movie, as does the most of the world seemingly. The Girl is a female character of complexity, a monster that follows little children around the street and steals their skateboards but also a vigilant with a cause for justice against rapists and pimps. She is not a hero in any sense — the opposite, she is a monster that does terrible things and accepts them fully: “I’ve done bad things. You don’t know the things I’ve done,” she tells Arash, the clear James Dean looking male lead of the movie and the romantic interest of hers, as a caution. In a way, The Girl is an anti-villain: riding her skateboard somewhere on the spectrum of good and evil, but closer to the second end.
The film and its relation to gender politics is even more interested when you start to get intersectional in your inspection of it, especially from the aspect of how it intersects with the issues of Islamophobia in today’s world. The chador The Girl wears starts to carry more meaning within its contextualization as a symbol of divide between two sides of Iranian politics of gender following the 1979 revolution. It also starts to carry more meaning within its contextualization as a symbol of the clear and dangerous othering of Middle Eastern people in Hollywood, especially after 9/11. The clothing, just like the woman who wears it and the movie it is wore in, is a crossroads, but not a bridge, of two different meanings: on the one hand, it means innocence and virtue in today’s Islam, but it also carries the meaning of rebellion in its history from just two decades ago. It is a fast and easy visual clue to tell that its wearer is helpless or in need of saving when used by Western media in most cases, but it is also a stereotypical clue of danger or tension in the air according to the Western society. There are not many roles a woman can play, even in today’s, media; and those roles are even more limited for a woman wearing a chador. You can only be in need of help, because you’re made into a submissive servant by your own culture, or you can be dangerous, because you look different and remind me of terrorism. The Girl is all of those things in this Iranian Western, because this is an Iranian Western. By placing something so familiarly Islamic in such a familiarly Western concept and filmmaking style, Amirpour dares her viewers to question their own cultural memories and prejudices.
Did you think that a girl walking home alone at night is in danger? She is, but in danger of her own hunger for blood. She is also a danger for those who are dangerous for other girls who are walking home alone at night. Did you think a woman wearing chador is in need of saving? She is, because she is isolated. She is not, because she is a vampire. Did you think she is a monster? She is, because, you know, she is a blood-sucking vampire who kills people. But also, her choice of victims also make her a savior, at least not when she is killing homeless men who are not shown doing anything wrong in the movie. The Girl is both the Final Girl and the villain of her own horror movie, a romantic interest to the eyes of some and something to be afraid of to the eyes of others: a complex female character that is in need of no man to save her. She is also the only speaking character in the movie that has no given name. We know nothing about her reasoning behind her choice of killing men who are violent to the woman. We don’t know why she has a poster of Margaret Atwood in her room that looks like the cover for the Madonna’s self-titled album.
In an interview with Sundance’s David Shear, Amirpour told that she didn’t want The Girl to speak, at least not too many times. “… it seemed to me she was much more a force of nature. And then once the layers were peeled back on her, she became, a still great character, a different kind of character.”
And that role as “a force of nature” becomes the reason as to why this movie such a talking point (or at least it should be). Horror, maybe more than any genre — who am I kidding, more than any genre — is concerned with gender dynamics of our society because it focuses on the very much act of violence; which has two defined roles of prey and the predator; which intentionally or unintentionally creates a bubble for a simple power structure. Violence, just as it is in real world, is a form of act that cannot exist without at least some social context lens it being perceived from: it concerns who is stronger and who is not, in the end. It is also the only genre, other than porn or eroticas, that we as audiences can somewhat examine our own relation to how we perceive our own gaze the gaze of others. Every iteration of every white men hunting down sexually active children, or invading their dreams, or want to play with some girl like a toy and make her go crazy because he is obsessed with her; is concerned with gender dynamics, not just within the universe it is presented in but also within the universe it is presented to.
Take the concept of final girl. A trope that one might see in such cult movies as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Alien, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and maybe most known of them all, Scream, the term was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and is concerned with the suggestion that how the viewer engages with the narrative is changed midway through the those movies that have the final girl, beginning on the perspective of the killer but ending with the shifted issue of identification falling onto the sole survivor of the movie, which just happens to be girl. And that girl, in most instances, just happens to be someone “typically sexually unavailable or virginal, and avoids the vices of the victims like illegal drug use,” according to Clover. “She sometimes has a unisex name such as Avery, Chris or Sidney.” Final girl is the “investigating consciousness” of the film, exhibiting qualities of intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance; qualities that are traditionally associated with, you guessed it right, male action heroes.
I know, I know, it is just an old movie trope. But it is, like all other movie tropes and genres, is an outlet of our society. Killing all the whores and then making the the embodiment of Madonna literally the only survivor is a narrative plan that cannot be inspected outside of its relation to how society looks at sex, women who have sex, and women in general as a whole, because than it wouldn’t mean much. Horror is great as an examination field for these questions because of its clear power structure between characters. I Spit On Your Grave or Let The Right One In or Teeth are revolutionary movies in that aspect, for their better or worse quality, because they put the women in a clear positions of predators, thus creating a new structure of power to be examined by the viewers. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is somewhat revolutionary in that same lens, too, but not just because of that lens — it is also important in its defying inspection of Western ownership and viewership of “other” in a larger context of enlightenment and sociopolitical advancement. More specifically, it is important because it puts a woman in chador, makes that chador-wearing woman an immortal vampire, makes that chador-wearing vampire prey upon violent men, makes that violent justice vigilante a romantic interest, and then makes her listen to 80’s music.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a movie that I’ve watched more than a couple of times, and it is one that I probably will be watching again. Some of this rewatches are based on the fact that it is just a beautiful movie. Some others are based on the fact that there is something about it that I can’t quite untangle in my mind. In specific, I can’t quite untangle why it seems to me that a movie has no visible ideology behind it can be also also culturally and politically meaningful. But maybe that is what Amirpour wanted to make, in the end, to start a conversation without voicing her opinions on it. Because there’s a conversation that is necessary to our culture, about women, about alienation, about us; and this movie is a great place to start it from.
(Amirpour also has said that “Lars von Trier”, director of such graphic and seemingly fetishistic movies such as Nymphomaniac and The Antichrist, “is the biggest feminist” when it comes to film industry, in an interview with The Guardian titled ““The Skateboarding Iranian Vampire Diaries” with Danny Leigh. So, there’s that too, for you to make what you want of it.)
This essay forms part of Women in Horror Month 2018. For more information on events, blog posts, and other projects, click here.