In a horror anthology filled with blood, guts, and palpable tension, Annie Clark brings an off-kilter levity to XX with ‘Birthday Party.’
**Potential Spoilers Ahead
When sitting down to view a horror film anthology, one doesn’t necessarily expect to see a short filled with bright colors and gallows humor – but that’s exactly what Annie Clark delivers with her directorial debut ‘Birthday Party.’
The story follows Mary, a housewife played by Melanie Lynskey (HBO’s Togetherness), who awakes on the day of her daughter’s seventh birthday party to find that her husband has killed himself in his office. As Clark said in an interview with Vulture, “the story was based on one a friend of mine told [her], just this woman waking up in a house with a dead body, and having to make very split-second decisions to protect the innocence of children.”
‘Birthday Party’ boldly stands out within the set of four movies, especially coming directly after the disturbing tension of ‘The Box’. But one of the many threads that bind the XX anthology together is motherly love and devotion. While Mary jumps through outlandish hoops to (unsuccessfully) hide her dead husband’s body, all of her actions are in service of allowing her daughter to have a carefree and fun birthday with her friends and spare her the pain of her father’s death.
Annie Clark—who is perhaps most well-known as the musician St. Vincent—shies away from watching horror movies as a rule but instead drew her inspiration from directors like Michael Henke (Funny Games), music videos such as Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” and even her own stage shows. Also having composed the film’s score, Clark uses shrieking strings used to connote a jumpscare in typical horror films but without the payoff, leaving the viewer wondering what lies around the next corner. The vivid candy colors of ‘Birthday Party’ reminded me most of the nameless suburbia that Tim Burton created in Edward Scissorhands—although we as viewers never leave Mary’s spotless home, one can only imagine a similar landscape laying in wait beyond those doors.
Clark, of course, isn’t the first to explore the sinister and potentially scarring aspects of a birthday party. Harold Pinter’s 1957 play The Birthday Party brought a party gone violent to the stage. And with her background as a musician, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of birthday parties in music: Nick Cave fronted the brooding punk band The Birthday Party before moving onto The Bad Seeds; Morrissey came to wish us an ‘Unhappy Birthday’ on The Smith’s 1987’s “Strangeways, Here We Come”; and more recently, Melanie Martinez held her destructive ‘Pity Party.’ The anxieties of who will arrive to the party and what could go wrong on top of getting older and closer to death underpin what is typically a celebratory moment and Clark brings that dread front and center.
‘Birthday Party’ is an absurdist dark comedy, equal parts delightful and deranged – as a directorial debut, it stands strongly alongside the rest of the XX anthology. It will be interesting to see what other quirky and off kilter places Annie Clark takes this newfound skill set.
XX is in theaters and available on demand on
@iTunes and @Amazon today! There’s also one last midnight showing at Nitehawk Cinema.