By Chelsea Spear
When Magnet Releasing announced the above-the-line talent for their horror anthology XX, one name stood out among the five directors: Annie Clark. Better known as St. Vincent, the artsy songwriter and guitarist makes her directorial debut with “The Birthday Party,” one of the short films in this compilation.
For her fans, Clark’s cinematic avocation comes as little surprise. Her ambitious and engaging music videos, in which she appears as an audience surrogate in off-kilter narratives. In the striking “Actor Out of Work” (2009), for example, Clark reacts placidly to a series of actors auditioning their hearts out for an unknown project; her steely gaze matches the intensity of her music while her rigid posture and minimal movements suggest the control she has over her creative work. More formally narrative videos draw on the Wes Anderson school of filmmaking to subvert viewers’ expectations. Shot in saturated earth tones with richly detailed tableau staging, these clips take the audience on surprisingly eerie journeys, such as the kidnapping and domestic play-acting of the “Cruel” video. Even the more whimsical clip for St. Vincent’s first single “Jesus Saves, I Spend” has its disturbing moments, as when a kid tied up in a sleeping bag gets dropped on a conveyor belt amidst bucolic, proto-Moonrise Kingdom scouting imagery.
While St. Vincent works with outside directors for her videos, Annie Clark’s interest in cinema and spectacle extends outside the YouTube frame. Her most recent solo tour incorporated choreography, unusual costumes, and dramatic interludes in a way that suggested Stop Making Sense. After a grueling tour to support Marry Me, Clark watched movies “as sort of a way to get back into being human,” she told Jackie Lyden of NPR in 2009. Her second album Actor featured songs inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, and Manhattan; “Surgeon”, the first single from her album Strange Mercy, included lines from Marilyn Monroe’s diary.
On Actor’s release, Clark told Billboard magazine that “at some point, I would like to try my hand at a proper film score.” That “some point” came in 2015, when producer Todd Brown contacted her about working on a horror anthology showcasing female directors. “And I just said yes,” she recently told Vulture. “It doesn’t often happen in the music industry, where someone says, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, just make something.’” Collaborating with producer Roxanne Benjamin, Clark wrote a script in which a mother wakes up to find that her husband has died and “has to make—in a second—a big decision to protect [her] children.”
Throughout the press tour for XX, Clark has acknowledged that she doesn’t enjoy the gore and violence associated with horror films, and has described “The Birthday Party” as a dark comedy. The short unfolds like a slow-motion slapstick, with the surreal contrast of kids in bizarre costumes (most notably a shrimp, a toilet, and a panda in a fez) and the ever-present dead body. Clark uses horror movie tropes like the jump scare to comic effect, and once viewers get past the shock of finding a corpse, the catty relationships among the mothers provide the film’s true horror.
Fans of St. Vincent’s music videos and imagery will find some common ground with “The Birthday Party”. Clark and cinematographer Tarin Anderson employ techniques found in her videos, such as long takes, a saturated color palette, and deliberate, tableau-like staging. Melanie Lynskey, who got her start in the beloved indie horror Heavenly Creatures, shares Annie Clark’s subtle screen presence; her wordless closeups and sad gaze ground the film in real emotion and emphasize the tragedy behind the bizarre circumstances of the film. Though Clark cited Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” video as one of the many influences on “The Birthday Party,” she imbues her film with a sense of humanity that will stick with viewers the same way her strange and beautiful music does.