For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a feminist vampire Spaghetti Western.
What does that even mean? What do words mean anymore? I’m seven months deep into the ramifications of a global pandemic, and the simple fact that I’m not prancing around a fire naked in the October moonlight is equal parts awe-inspiring and disappointing. I haven’t seen my office mates since March. I highly suspect one of them is a mere projection, a hologram of tediousness who has ceased to exist in the physical realm and has ascended to the digital plane to wreak havoc and let slip the emails of war.
I never was one for solipsism. It’s immature and convenient. But this whole brain-in-a-vat thing is starting to feel alluring. Forget the metaphor. My body is the vat and the pixels on the screen are the inputs masquerading as reality.
I have ceased normality. I am but a reaction to different lights and sounds played by the dark box I brought home with me those months ago.
We must make the dark box happy. We must feed the lights and the sounds with more lights and sounds. This is purgatory. Everything moves through gelatin and damnation.
What is it like out there? Do they still do the moving pictures? Do we still tell stories? Does anyone connect anymore? Tell me about the last time you hugged someone. Did you hug them close? Did you feel their heart beat? Did you smell the blood coursing underneath their flesh? Did you feast upon them, devouring every bit of sustenance you could from their being?
Ah, right. Vampires. That’s where we were.
Girl being described as a feminist vampire Spaghetti Western isn’t word salad, though it is delectable. I know that some of those words will probably elicit an eye-roll from some readers; I will invite them to allow their eyes to roll straight out of their heads and into the nearest zombie essay. Everything may be falling apart, but words do indeed still mean something more than the convenient constructions built inside some heads.
The simplest word in this film delicacy is vampire. The antihero is a vampire. She goes out at night and bites people. The creators watched Nosferatu for inspiration. The film is shot in black and white, strengthening this connection. That’s how I get to write about this film for No Sleep October instead of Wild West Winter. Simple. Spooky. An appetizer. Let’s move on.
Girl starts its feminist journey with the title itself. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a phrase that strikes fear into a considerable number of our populace.They are taught from a very young age to never, ever be this girl. That to be this girl is to invite misfortune upon yourself in much the same way being alive is an open invitation to a serial killer.
We soon find, though, that the titular girl walks alone like Dwayne Johnson takes movie roles — without fear. This antihero turns this normalized fear on its head and is, in fact, the thing that bumps in the night herself. She walks without fear because she can defend herself. And, as the movie progresses, defend others as well.
The ability to defend herself and others is not by itself what grants the ability to view this film with a feminist lens. That can be too low of a bar to clear anymore, sometimes too greatly simplifying the complex. Rather, and more appropriately, Girl succeeds on this beat because we have usually relegated these traits to folks like the Man with No Name in the Dollars Trilogy or Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. When women are mysterious strangers in movies, they usually come packing femme-fatale characteristics in clothing that caters to the male gaze. They are side dishes to the male entree, accentuating the protagonist too often instead of being the focus. They aren’t the gritty and silent stranger coming into town to balance the opposing forces making good people miserable. And they certainly aren’t chador-wearing vampiresses.
Which gets us to the Spaghetti Western part. (Wait. Does this make spaghetti the dessert in this eatery? Perhaps I have indeed lost my mind to madness.)
The term Spaghetti Western was coined to describe westerns made by Italians and sometimes even filmed in Italy. It’s not the most elegant reference, but it represents much more than the geography. In Girl’s case, it is part geography, too. The film is shot completely in Persian, but the filming locations were in English-dominated America — another slight twist to the typical Spaghetti Western trope of Italian-speaking actors, likely filmed in Italy, getting synched by a different voice in post-production.
The grander part, though, is that Spaghetti Westerns usually have a hero roll into town and play rival gangs against one another, first to the hero’s advantage but ultimately to the advantage of those taken advantage of.
The rival gangs in Girl could be read as class and drugs. Arash, the Boy the Girl takes interest in, is caught between the two often. He works hard to get the things he desires, but it’s threatened by the drug habits of his father and his father’s dealer, motivating him at times to steal or deal to get a better foothold on life. The Girl, seemingly motivated simply by vigilantism or self-interest in the antihero sort of way, becomes more connected with Arash.
Like other antiheroes’ connections grow — the Shanes, the Cassidys, the Rooster Cogburns — so does a connection between the Girl and Arash. I had a hard time seeing Girl as a western on my first watch. That is, until the scene where Arash goes to the Girl’s apartment and the spark occurs.
If you only Google “Girl Walks Home scene,” the first that appears is this scene, and it is, as billed, absolutely breathtaking (and quintessentially in the western genre).
At this point, the audience knows the Girl is a vampire. We have a good enough opinion of Arash at this moment, too. But, he’s a little high and a little misguided. He has stolen valuables and given drugs. The Girl is well within her code to defend others from Arash. We have no trust, and thus there is suspense.
This moment is a standoff. Our hearts thud. Arash’s, too. She bends his neck back.
One of the other most impressive western callbacks serves another duality. The soundtrack uses the music of Federale, an Ennio Morricone-inspired American psychedelic band. The track “Black Sunday” echoes Morricone’s “The Trio” and “Tribe,” which closes the film with a fusion of the same thunderous drumbeat as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” — replete with syncopated grunts, cheery whistle, and the female vocal feel of “The Ecstasy of Gold.” The duality? Spaghetti Westerns, especially those by Sergio Leone, also unabashedly borrowed from other films. It’s only fitting to use a band that heavily borrows (in a more respectful homage) from one of the most well-known western-genre composers.
In our breathtaking scene, the soundtrack is actually from the post-punk band White Lies and more at home sandwiched between songs by the Wombats and the Smiths than a horror-western. Why does it work here? Why this rather than doubling down on a western song for our standoff?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m barely real anymore and I don’t want to say anything dumb about the usage of music in movies. What I will point out is that the entire movie makes little nudges everywhere. The Girl can walk home alone at night without fear. The vampire isn’t a source of fear but of justice or retribution. So the western elements come in not with loud spurs and gunshots but distant whistles and heartfelt drums. At the apex then, fangs are pointed to veins and arteries and all the juicy Arash insides and the tension subsides into the calming beats of a heart.
Maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s lyrics like “I can feel my heart beating” and “the fear’s got ahold of me.” I dunno.
Girl has quickly become one of my favorite westerns. It’s also one of my favorite horror movies. Horror can be disgusting or terrifying or humorous, and each of these takes are fun because good movies are fun. But as we move into New Sincerity, there’s something comforting about horror, too —another little twist to consider.