A vampire is such a handy creature for filmmakers in search of a metaphor or two. Mortality is usually the first bite, and Ana Lily Amirpour's stunning first feature, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," definitely takes a stab at that.
But it is the way in which the writer-director uses the specter of vampires and vices to take an off-center cut at Iranian gender politics and U.S.-Eurocentric pop culture that sets the film apart. They might seem poles apart, but the mashup is unexpectedly on the nose, or neck, or wherever else a vampire might choose to feed.
The Iranian American filmmaker, who was born in London but grew up in Miami and now lives in California, builds the mythical Bad City, where the vampire lurks, out of bits and pieces of a multitude of ideas and influences.
In almost every decision the director makes, there is a calculated risk, more heartening each time she takes it. The film is shot in black and white. The spare dialogue is spoken in Farsi (with English subtitles). The soundtrack draws on haunting Iranian rock and 1980s-era U.K.-style techno pop. The result is an exhilarating melange of Amirpour's parents' memories of their homeland and her own experiences and impressions.
The pump in the desolate, decaying oil town of Bad City, like a giant mechanical praying mantis, is among the pointed imagery, an ever-present reminder that issues of commerce as much as religion hang in the air. (Parts of Bakersfield stand in nicely.)
The vampire is a girl, and as with all the characters, she's identified as a type, not by name. From a distance, the Girl, played with a ghostly grace by Sheila Vand ("Argo"), looks like she's wearing a chador, head and body covered in a black shroud designed to divide her from the world. That she is the most dangerous of all is but one of the satisfying, ironic touches.
As the camera moves closer, we see that her garb is closer to cape than chador, often unfurling behind her in the wind. Fitting since, in a bizarre way, Amirpour has made her a crusader too.
A skateboard copped from the Little Boy (Milad Eghbali) becomes the Girl's preferred mode of transportation and gives the film some ties to modern times. But there is a very strong retro strain running through the film, from the vinyl records the Girl plays to her possible love interest, the Persian James Dean (Arash Marandi). In his white T-shirt, jeans and leather jacket, he does remind you of a 1950s-era heartthrob.
Since this is as much an old-fashioned romance as a political statement, there is a "meet cute" for the couple. The Persian is drunk, lost, trying to find his way home from a costume party. He went as Dracula. She's out looking for a late-night snack. They end up talking instead, until she takes him home.
Sparks don't exactly fly, but there is an immediate and eerie chemistry you pick up on — part smoldering, part surreal. They are strangers, but they have dealings with many of the same characters. Bad City is a small town, all lives interconnected.
The Persian is the closest thing "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" has to an innocent. The rest of the players are different shades of bad, each adding layers to the points Amirpour is making.
The Pimp (Dominic Rains) runs drugs and women and is ruthless. The Prostitute ("The Blacklist" and "House of Cards'" Mozhan Marnò) works the streets for him because it's the only work she can find. The Gambler ("How I Met Your Mother's" Marshall Manesh), also the heartthrob's father, is awash in his various addictions, heroin supplied by the Pimp the most deadly. The Rich Girl (Rome Shadanloo) is an entitled tease, especially when it comes to the hot gardener, who is the Persian James Dean. The Rockabilly (Reza Sixo Safai) is a transgender-esque man/woman and nearly invisible to the residents of Bad City, who no doubt would prefer he not exist.
The Girl is slowly working her way though the bunch, deciding who should live or die. So is the heartthrob; he's just not handing out death sentences. Her drive is as much about right and wrong as hunger, though it's never said. The other burning question under consideration is whether love will change one or both of them, but not in an ooey-gooey "Twilight" way.
Amirpour worked with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, production designer Sergio De La Vega and costume designer Natalie O'Brien, in a visual style that drew on such disparate influences as Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Within that tableau, the actors extend the tone, dancing around each other and around issues as if they were at the mercy of forces far beyond them. The vampire suggesting, perhaps not.
Amirpour's fascination with macabre storytelling can be traced to her first experiments with film, a slasher short shot with her dad's camera when she was 12. The writer-director's 2012 animated short, "A Little Suicide," was about a cockroach's mental breakdown. Next up, she's working on a cannibal love story.
For now, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is a mesmerizing taste of Amirpour's work, filled with enough creative invention to whet the appetite for more.
'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes, Farsi with English subtitles