You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d reached peak vampire. It seemed, for a while, that the last word had been said on this pop-cultural obsession. The dawn was in sight, and we were all looking forward to being able to down stakes and watch something sunny for a change.
You hadn’t bet on Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, the stunning A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which made its Australian debut at ACMI this week.
“I hate death,” says Amirpour. “I don’t like the idea of old age, and I don’t like the way it looks either. I never have. I hated E.T. as a kid. I think the E.T. was an old man. I don’t feel comfortable with death and the decay of the body. Vampires don’t die. They cheat death and get to stay here.”
What Amirpour does feel comfortable with is talking about movies. In our short conversation, she manages to turn the conversation to E.T., Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish and Back to the Future.
A Girl is a hard film to describe because it’s so unusual. It’s about a vampire, of course, but it’s set in Iran—not a country widely known for its Gothic tradition. It’s an American film, but it’s spoken entirely in Farsi. It’s part fairy tale, but it’s shot in brooding black and white and takes its visual cues more from Jim Jarmusch than Tim Burton. Tangled up with the vampire element is a story of a depressed Iranian town, dominated by crime and the vista of distant oil mines. We see economic disparity, drug addiction and desperation long before any fangs emerge.
Suffice to say that it’s moving, sharp and completely unexpected. Likewise, Amirpour herself is a mix of many things. “I’m a stew,” she says. “I’m Iranian, but I was born in England. I had my puberty in Californian malls…”
It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s atmosphere and its genre trappings—but it’s not an exercise in style over substance. It’s the small microcosm of well-drawn characters that gives it real potency.
“I think what I’m most excited about is designing characters. We understand the world based on so many rules—the clothes you wear, the car you drive, where you live—but when you peel the layers back there are such strange things. Weird, secret things that contradict the outside system. That’s where I get excited. What you see is never what you get. This girl, on the surface, looks a certain way, but there are so many different things going on. I’m interested in the strange, weirdo stuff.”
Vampires, then, fit the territory. “Vampires have this loneliness, which I’m very close with. I like loneliness. I think loneliness gets misunderstood, and the vampire is the loneliest character of all.”
Horror cinema as a genre, I put to her, can be misunderstood. Along with science fiction, it’s often seen as lightweight and not capable of dealing with the big issues. This makes A Girl’s boldness and willingness to take itself seriously all the more refreshing. Amirpour is incensed by the idea that imaginative stories, and weird genre-cocktails like this one, can’t hold their weight.
“Look at Back to the Future,” she says. “For me, Back to the Future I and II are some of the most important films in my life. It became this pop culture phenomenon, but when [director] Robert Zemeckis was going around and pitching this movie, it was about a kid in the 1980s who goes back to the past and meets his mother and almost has sex with her. It’s really subversive. The idea’s crazy!”
Crazy ideas, to Amirpour, are the fun part, and the part that stays with you.
“There’s power—different kinds of power—in all different kinds of storytelling,” she says. “That’s what’s wonderful about it. Movies are just dreams. They’re limitless.”
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night screens at ACMI from December 27 until January 26. More information here.