Nik McGrath

Still of Carol Kane as Dorine Douglas in OFFICE KILLER, 1997

Still of Carol Kane as Dorine Douglas in OFFICE KILLER, 1997

Women in Horror Month turns 10 this year! On 12 February I screened short film THE BIRTHDAY PARTY directed by Annie Clark, co-written with Roxanne Benjamin, from 2017 all-female horror anthology XX; followed by 1997 feature OFFICE KILLER, directed by Cindy Sherman, story by Sherman and Elise MacAdam. I think it’s interesting to compare these films, made 20 years apart. Both films at their core have a relationship between a mother and daughter. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is from the mother’s perspective and OFFICE KILLER is from the daughters. That’s not why I chose to show these films together, they share something else in common. See the films, if you haven’t already, I’m interested in what you think. 

Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, made her directing debut with THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. St Vincent is a musician based in New York, who says she’s “really caught the bug” and hopes to direct again in the future. 

St Vincent prescribes to the Nick Cave method of making music, working from 10am to 7pm, experimenting and writing until something good comes out. She’s a gifted guitar player. She started playing when she was 12 years old. St Vincent listens to a Bowie track every day. Check out the J Files - St Vincent podcast from 2017, it doesn’t cover her film, but has interesting insights about her creative process.

Still of Melanie Lynskey as Mary in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, 2017

Still of Melanie Lynskey as Mary in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, 2017

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY stars Melanie Lynskey, who Clark chose for this role. Clark said, "She’s truly one of my absolute favourite actors of all time.” XX features 3 out of 5 stories about mothers and their children. Lynskey plays a mother, Mary, who is trying to make a perfect birthday party for her daughter Lucy, until things go horribly wrong.

Shock Waves interviewed 3 out of the 5 directors of XX in episode 38. Can’t rave about this episode enough - it’s a true insight about the challenges female filmmakers face in a male dominated industry. Clark wasn’t one of the 3, but Roxanne Benjamin who co-wrote THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is. Clark was a bit of a wild card as a musician who had never made a film. Clark was excited to make something creative, even on a small budget. Interestingly, Clark is not a horror fan.

OFFICE KILLER is directed by one of our greatest living photographers, Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work as a photographer is cinematic, featuring herself as the model, using costumes and dramatic lighting, often in her home studio, to create subversive female characters. Her work as a photographer translates beautifully to film.

Untitled #122, Cindy Sherman, 1983

Untitled #122, Cindy Sherman, 1983

I discovered Cindy Sherman’s photographs in high school. I was obsessed with photography, I spent lunchtimes in the darkroom - it was one of my favourite place to escape. Sherman was an inspiration because her work commented on the portrayal of women in mass media. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Sherman’s work, I recommend a doco, Nobody’s Here But Me from 1994 available on YouTube. Sherman states: “Movies are one of my biggest influences. Many of my favourite movies are horror movies. I just like being scared, I guess. It creates an adrenaline rush that’s like being on a rollercoaster ride. Terrifying on the one hand, but you feel this ride eventually stops and you can get off and go home. It was a movie, and it was all fake blood. There’s something calming about it. Something that makes you feel secure with your life cause you can experience this horror that perhaps we all have about death and violence, and somehow come to terms with it”. Sherman became obsessed with death and violence after moving to New York. 

My introduction to Sherman’s photographs was around the time her film was released back in 1997. Sadly the film didn’t reach Australia, which is a shame, because I would have loved to see this in the cinema, especially at a time when I was just beginning to learn about Sherman’s work. The film didn’t receive much attention by critics until a book was published in 2014, CINDY SHERMAN’S OFFICE KILLER ANOTHER KIND OF MONSTER by Dahlia Schweitzer. Schweitzer’s analysis of the film includes some interesting observations. She argues that OFFICE KILLER is a mix of three genres - horror, noir, and comedy. She blames the fusion of genres for OFFICE KILLER’S lack of commercial success. 

Sherman doesn’t like art historians and critics dissecting her work. She says that she works intuitively. She’s not interested in theories about the intentions behind her photographs, but finds it amusing how far critics will go to make their theories fit her work.

Carol Kane stars in OFFICE KILLER as Dorine Douglas, a magazine editor. I find her eyebrows unnerving, they add to her performance. Costume designer Todd Thomas created Dorine’s costume, but Sherman drew on Dorine’s eyebrows.

Still of Carol Kane as Jill Johnson in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, 1979

Still of Carol Kane as Jill Johnson in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, 1979

Carol Kane was not new to horror when she played Dorine Douglas in 1997. In 1978 she starred in THE MAFU CAGE, also directed by a woman, Karen Arthur, and in 1979 she starred in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. Her big eyes are perfect for horror, they are so expressive. 

Molly Ringwald plays Kim Poole. In a recent interview at The Broad, an art museum in LA, Ringwald said the budget for costumes was $15 per character, so she bought her own wardrobe of black office wear to the set. Sherman said, “no no no, Kim is all colour”. Ringwald went on to say that “most of the direction I got from her was visual. We were a photograph come to life; because of Cindy’s eye, and because she is an artist, it became a piece of art.”


Art History Babes (8 June 2018), Cindy Sherman, [podcast],  https://www.arthistorybabes.com/episode-89-cindy-sherman/ 

BBC Arena (1994) Cindy Sherman - Nobody’s Here But Me, [documentary] https://youtu.be/UXKNuWtXZ_U 

Loughrey, C (2017) St Vincent interview: Annie Clark on all-female horror anthology XX, plus Danny Elfman’s dead cat, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/xx-annie-clark-st-vincent-interview-dvd-release-date-the-birthday-party-directorial-debut-melanie-a7717906.html?amp

Pike, G (10 August 2017) The J Files - St Vincent, [podcast],  https://www.abc.net.au/doublej/programs/the-j-files/st-vincent/10274468 

Schweitzer, D (2014) Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer Another Kind of Monster, Intellect, Bristol

Shock Waves (10 February 2017), Episode 38: The Directors of XX, [podcast], http://podbay.fm/show/1109880594/e/1486728000?autostart=1 

The Broad (n.d.), Molly Ringwald on the Office Killer film, [podcast], https://www.thebroad.org/content/office-killer-molly-ringwald