annie clark, aka st. vincent, on the horror of female anxiety

The musician made her directorial debut at Sundance this year as part of the all-female horror anthology 'XX.' Annie's dark suburban neurosis short 'The Birthday Party' is not particularly gory, but feels very pertinent in today's uncertain America.

by Hannah Ongley
Feb 17 2017, 5:55pm

The pivotal scene in Annie Clark's ominous and humorous horror film involves Melanie Lynskey waking up on the day of her daughter's seventh birthday party to find a dead body in her house and having to figure out what to do with it. When I suggest that this could be a metaphor for the U.S. election, Annie laughs and doesn't elaborate. But she does talk about the proliferation of horror films that spoke to civil anxieties during another volatile period in recent American history: the 80s. Though the Reagan-era horror canon is hardly a welcoming place for women who dream of doing anything other than getting naked or getting killed. It goes without saying that you don't often see women at the helm of these films.

"Especially in the 80s," Annie tells i-D when I call to talk about her directorial debut The Birthday Party, "horror films relied on the 'last girl' premise. Any woman who was not a virgin would be killed, and a woman's worth would be dependant on her sexual purity. The virgin would be spared at the end." For her own contribution to the all-female horror anthology XX - comprised of short films by Annie, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, and Jovanka Vuckovic - she didn't have to work to avoid that. It would never have appealed to her anyway. Nor to Roxanne, who co-wrote and produced The Birthday Party. Roxanne's filmography includes the horror anthology Southbound and the graphic music video for Cherry Glazerr's murderous feminist anthem "Nurse Ratched."

The anxieties explored in The Birthday Party are also female. Specifically, motherhood. Melanie's kimono-clad desperate housewife is at the center of the plot, which takes place almost exclusively inside her pastel-drenched suburban sanctuary. We encounter two other characters in the immaculate garden - a nosy neighbor hankering for an invite to the party, and a rapping panda bear whose creepy cartoonish head becomes the centerpiece of The Birthday Party's surreal, slow-mo climax. The score is as excellent as the performances. After not quite managing to get Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" for the final scene, Annie set it to a magnificent homage to the 80s rock group. We talked to the newly minted director about (almost) overcoming her fear of horror films, and her own disastrous seventh birthday party.

How did you come to be involved in this project and why did you want to try directing?
They reached out to me and asked if I had any interest in being part of the anthology. I said, "Of course." I think it's important in life to say yes to challenges and say yes to things that you don't necessarily know how to do, but just throw yourself into the deep end and figure out how to swim. A horror film, while I know there are some parameters to the genre - essentially a horror film should be about the kind of things that scare us most. That can be creeping dread, it can be a big jump scare, or it can be things like motherhood.

Why a birthday party? Have you had any disastrous ones of your own?
I did have a disastrous birthday party. I got in a car wreck on the way to my seventh birthday party. So that was chaotic. But I decided to have a birthday party so that there were high stakes and other people intended to come into the house. It made Mary's decision-making all the more frantic, and drove home the point that she would really do anything to try and make her daughter happy.

I love Melanie Lynskey as an obsessive housewife. It reminds me of her character in Clea Duvall's own directorial debut The Intervention. What is she like in real life?
Melanie is a vision. She is so talented, and so kind, and there's nobody who could have carried this short film like she did.

The film centers around female anxiety. Do you think the significance of this theme has increased post-election?
We premiered this movie at Sundance the day after the Women's Marches all over the world protesting Donald Trump. I do think that the timing of it is auspicious.

How familiar were you with the work of the other directors before embarking on this project?
I had seen Karyn Kusama's The Invitation. But because I knew that I was going to walk into the entire thing with a certain amount of naivety, and there was no way to necessarily educate myself on the history of horror in the short span that I had, plus I would be too scared to watch the films. I intentionally didn't watch the rest of the shorts in making mine because I wanted everything to fit together in a more subconscious way and not be too influenced by the scenes of the other pieces. Working with Roxanne was a dream. She is an incredible writer/director herself and really showed me the ropes of directing.

Talk about the soundtrack, particularly the dramatic music playing when the guests are walking into the party. What's it like scoring a film as a musician?
Scoring the film was the easiest part of making the whole movie. It was sort of a relief to be back in the studio and just go, "Oh, I know how to do this." I banged it out very quickly. In the ending sequence, I originally wanted "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden. I got a hold of Chris Cornell through back channels to get that song but it never came to fruition, so I basically did a "Black Hole Sun" homage at the end.

You also composed the soundtrack for Kristen Stewart's own directorial debut. How different is it, as a new director and a musician, to be scoring the film of another new director?
Kristen had a very specific process that she wanted to follow. There wasn't actually a ton of freedom in that score. She seemed like she knew exactly what she wanted and just needed someone to implement it.


Text Hannah Ongley

Annie Clark
St. Vincent
The Birthday Party