This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
A chador-clad figure steps out of a lonely supermarket into dimly lit streets. She walks past a series of dense buildings into a basement apartment. Inside, a psychedelic pop record spins on the record player. “In a perfect world where nothing dies, broken glass on the bottom of my heels; Oriental dress, the one you love is a mess...” the singer croons in English, before diving into the Farsi verse. The figure, no longer wearing the chador, gyrates in unearthly slow-mo against a wall of posters of Iranian underground rock bands and feminist literary icons. She has a short bob, and she’s wearing a beatnik-y black-and-white striped shirt. As the music plays, she moves, as if underwater, towards her bed and sits down. Then, she lines her large eyes heavily with kohl and darkens her lips a deep red—the color of her next victim’s blood.
That’s the first time we meet the Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the breathtaking debut film by the Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour. As the film goes on, we learn that this Girl is a vigilante vampire/hipster chick who skateboards up and down the perennially dark streets of Bad City, chador fluttering behind her like a Superhero’s cape, and preys on the men who give the desolate Iranian industrial town its name.
Amirpour’s film, released in 2014, is rich with visual references. The Guardian called it “the Iranian love-child of Sergio Leone and David Lynch, with Nosferatu as a babysitter.” While true, that statement underplays the influence of Persian auteurs—filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Hajir Darioush, Asghar Farhadi, and the graphic artist and animated film director Marjane Satrapi. But aesthetics aside, perhaps one of the most exhilarating things about the film is the subversive relationship between the Girl and the physical environment in which she operates. As the undead, she inserts herself into the realm of the living—and as a woman, she takes subversive ownership of the city’s dark and desolate spaces.
Bad City lies at the edge of an Iranian oil refinery (although the film was actually shot in California). Its skyline consists of oil drills that peck the barren earth, siphoning off oil. Although rich, clean-cut, well-lit areas exist, they are few and far in between. In one scene, the Girl meets Arash, a James Dean lookalike, in one of those suburban enclaves. He’s lost, and high from drugs he was cajoled into consuming at a costume party. (That’s why he’s dressed, quite adorably, as Dracula.) When he sees the Girl, he asks her where they are. “Bad City,” she replies. “Bad City? I live in Bad City,” he says. “This doesn’t look Bad City. It’s not familiar.”
That may be because he’s straight-up tripping. But it’s also because most of the town consists of perennially dark alleyways, vacant lots, and seemingly empty warehouses. It’s not a city designed for everyone—and certainly not for women. And that’s apparent when Saeed, a tattoo-speckled pimp and coke-snorting drug-dealer, abuses a prostitute named Atti in one of the many isolated areas in the city. It’s the kind of space where he can get away with that and much, much worse.
Historically, public spaces weren’t meant for women, and in most geographical and cultural contexts, that’s still true. In many parts of the world, women are still explicitly barred from the same spaces as men. And even where they have access, they’re not really free. Cis- and transgender women are disproportionately at risk for physical, sexual, and verbal violence in such spaces. And yet, it’s these potential victims who are required to change their behavior and movement to feel safe. Even in the middle of the day, it can be risky to walk along a deserted street or parking lot. And after dark, mobility is restricted even further: if they’re walking home, many women make sure they don’t cut through a dark alleyway, even if it’s the shortest route. They plan trips so they don’t end up in a subway car or bus by themselves. And they avoid going for runs in empty parks. Even though sexual assault can take place no matter what a person is wearing, many modify their clothes depending on where they’re going for fear of attracting too much attention. (On the flip side, one reason some women choose to wear a Muslim veil is because they feel it helps them navigate public spaces more anonymously, allowing them to control how the male gaze regards them.)
All of these constraints affect civic participation and social and economic mobility. Of course, the conditions that cause them stem from the cultural imbalance between sexes, which exists almost everywhere. But urban design does play a role. In Vienna, planners are having a conversation to correct for these limiting flaws: they’re adding lights, widening sidewalks, and adding ramps for strollers. Delhi, on the other hand, lies on the opposite end. It has seen a series of grisly, high-profile sexual assault cases and has been deemed the “rape capital” of the world. The city’s design has something to do with that, Neil Padukone wrote for CityLab:
But the sprawling, suburban subdivision style of urban design that, in the Indian context, was pioneered by New Delhi provides an enabling environment for sexual violence and other vicious crimes to proliferate. Even in Mumbai—a city that is otherwise denser, more mixed in its land use, and generally has a lower incidence of sexual violence—the parts of the city that have seen higher incidences of sexual assault are isolated areas like Shakti Mills.
To be clear, sexual harassment can and often does happen in crowded public spaces. But getting away with assaults is easier when there are no eyes on the street—like in Bad City. Fortunately, the Girl steps in where the city fails. She’s a predator in the same spaces in which she would otherwise have been prey. She walks alone, unaccompanied; she sinks her canines into the patriarchy, and takes back the night.