By Tanya Vasundharan
Do three-line film reviews on IMDB usually disappoint you? Is it a bit like chasing a perverse chef for a simple recipe, where you end up with an idea of the essential ingredients but aren’t told that one ingredient in it would change everything for you?
I have to confess that this is what happened with me and the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour. When it came out in 2014, I’d looked it up, and the caption made the film sound immensely forgettable: ‘In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware that they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire.’ Another vampire-themed story, and of course it had to ascribe to the barren town mode, just like Near Dark (1987), Nosferatu (1992), and Byzantium (2012).
But the day before New Year’s Eve, I finally watched the film because a friend had been asked to watch it as a reference for her still photography class. And the next morning, when news of the Bangalore mass molestation was splattered all over the papers, imagining the victims as the protagonist of the film was all I could think of for a while. Because what IMDB leaves out in its ditchwater-dull summary, is that the vampire is a woman (unnamed), who rolls around an empty town on a skateboard and in a chador, picking on unsuspecting men in the dead of the night.
*Many spoilers. Beware*
The film is wickedly tongue-in-cheek, particularly when her victims are unsuspecting men who come on to her. The first time you see her, it appears as if she’s in danger after being lured into a sleazy rich pimp’s house. He’s snorting coke like there’s no tomorrow, and luckily for him there isn’t. He approaches her after a few lines, and strokes her face while his giant chest muscles twinkle in the light. Then he shoves his finger in her mouth, alpha-male confidence about getting laid oozing from every pore (never mind that he has the word ‘S-E-X’ tattooed on his neck) and that’s when the fun starts. In a flash, she sprouts formidable canines and bites off his whole finger. There’s a very loud crunch.
It’s not just that the film subverts stereotypes about predatory male vampires and their delicate girls-in-white prey, because there’s plenty of that in literature and pop culture already, from the eponymous vampire in Carmilla, a Gothic novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that was written before Dracula, to Drussila in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Pamela Swynford in True Blood. I used to be called Van Helsing in school — beats me why, maybe it had to do with my all-black outfits or the Goth sullenness I tried hard to exude for a brief period — but let me tell you that the woman in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one character that would make Van in all his Transylvanian macho glory look weedy and try-hard. Because the most striking aspect about the film was the powerful ease with which she walked — the surge of relief that passed over you knowing that you didn’t have to squirm uncomfortably in familiar discomfort waiting for her to be attacked — the confidence with which she navigated empty streets at night.
Had I ever felt that sense of magnificent freedom as a woman on the streets at any hour? Not since puberty, I don’t think. I did experience a heady rush the first time I stepped out on to a desolate platform at a tiny station called Sole Street (as the name suggests, it was always empty) in Kent. I had just visited a friend in London, and was on my way back home. It was past midnight, but I was scornful and high on independence. No trace of the paranoid edge I developed later after being followed home on two occasions in Defence Colony, an apparently safe part of New Delhi. And then a large, drunk British man, mumbling incoherently, began following me. After 10 minutes, he attempted to drag me to his car. He thought I was an escort, or something along those lines, and so, of course, in his head, willing to be dragged by strangers to their cars. Years later, I spoke to a Ghanaian friend who grew up in Italy and was constantly propositioned or asked outright if she was a prostitute, and why this large creep picked me in particular made a little more sense.
After being followed in broad daylight by a group of 18-year-old boys yelling, “Get that Indian chick to give you a blowjob” in a public park in Surrey, and being followed into a gym by a drunk who insisted that I was his ‘Hindustani’ girlfriend, it hit me that my perception about England being safer for women was a complete misconception. Instead, what confronted me there as a brown immigrant woman was the ‘exotic or invisible’ dichotomy. Your presence was either ignored completely, or hyper-sexualised, and rare confessions of straightforward attraction occasionally accompanied by the caveat “For an Indian, you’re quite this, that, or the other.”
Being followed in what you presume to be safe-enough places, only to realise that sadly there is no such thing as ‘safe-enough’, is what makes watching the vampire stalk the streets in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night such a surreal and refreshing (if escapist) experience. Because, while relentlessly stalking sleazy chaps and chomping off their fingers — or even mimicking the protagonist in the Utopia cartoon below — isn’t what we would all get up to go do on a Friday evening. But it’s nice that they exist, fearlessly, in our imaginations.