Starry Eyes (2014)
Dirs: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
How far would you go for a role? Would you sacrifice your body and soul? Starry Eyes seeks to answer that question by combining Hollywood satire with grisly body horror to detail the surreal journey of an amateur actress looking to land her big break. Alex Essoe is a standout in the lead role as Sarah and the film blurs the lines between reality and nightmares in a meta-narrative about upstart filmmakers made by upstart filmmakers. Writer/directors Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer bring a keen ear for the meandering dialogue of 20-something burgeoning artists and wannabes, and pepper their steadily escalating tale with small moments that ring true for anyone who is similar to or has been around characters like the ones portrayed. Your appetite for gore and willingness to wait for it will be directly proportional to your enjoyment of this movie, but patience is a virtue.
Starry Eyes follows Sarah, a lanky brunette barely scraping by in L.A. working at a low rent Hooter’s knockoff dubbed Tater Tots. She’s got stars in her eyes and big Hollywood dreams, and is hardly able to care about her menial day job as she awaits a callback for her next acting gig. Her leering boss Carl (reliable character actor Pat Healy) is on her case for using her phone at work and amusingly reprimands her lack of commitment to Tater Tots. Sarah’s rooming with sympathetic friend Tracy (Amanda Fuller) and attends parties with like-minded Millenials who talk a big game but have yet to actually make it big. When she spots an online ad for a new horror film “The Silver Scream” she applies and is accepted to a casting call, her ultimate fate set in motion.
From the start the film mixes the old with the new, with an appealingly retro synth score (which are increasingly common but still welcome) combined with some mumblecore tendencies (naturalistic dialogue and lighting, likely a reality of the low budget) to create a unique aesthetic. There’s an unsettling mood established early, as Sarah has screaming breakdowns and tugs violently at her hair to the point that it rips out. Her fragile psyche is perhaps not well-suited to an actor’s life but she struggles on regardless. It’s hard at times to identify with the secondary and tertiary characters, who often represent one singular trait. The Casting Director (Maria Olsen) and her Assistant (Marc Senter) are respectively creepy and condescending, while friend and potential love interest Danny (Noah Segan) is earnest and amusingly catty frenemy Erin (Fabianne Therese) is adversarial. It should be said that each actor does essay their respective traits well.
Sarah navigates this minefield of personalities deeper into the audition process and is subjected to constant barbs from haters and doubters and a degrading camera test requiring nudity. She faces her ultimate crucible against the prodding Producer (Louis Dezseran) – a grinning avatar for the lecherousness of the movie industry itself. The casting couch is given a supernatural, cult-like bent and Sarah’s ambition eventually leads her to the hellscape of a degrading body and mind.
For the first two thirds Starry Eyes is a solid if unremarkable low budget look at the life of a struggling 20-something actress in L.A. It’s after Sarah gives in to the Producer’s requests that the movie really finds its groove and dives into deeply disturbing territory. Sarah’s been impregnated with something that begins to rot her body and soul from the inside out, and her disease and desire lead her to harm those she’s closest to. The effects are queasy and impressive – doubly so given the budget – and the body horror here is simply disgusting. Decomposing parts, jet black goo, and writhing maggots are just some elements that will give fans of early Cronenberg and The Thing-era John Carpenter much to appreciate. Essoe is a revelation as Sarah, a brittle girl who pushes through her self-doubt to achieve her dreams at a great cost to her and those around her. The script asks a lot of her, both physically and emotionally, and in return she gives a baring performance that makes you feel voyeuristic for even witnessing it.
Essoe, along with the solid effects, are probably the biggest selling points overall. The score is equally evocative but the themes are a little heavy handed. Starry Eyes hits its messages hard and often – the extreme lengths that someone will go to for success and fame and how Hollywood can swallow up young starry-eyed ingenues – so that even though the ending is a little ambiguous its purpose is not. That kind of repetition and lack of depth would normally not bode well, but solid craftsmanship and grisly practical effects allow the film to rise above any perceived shortcomings. For the most part Starry Eyes turns its limitations (low budget, lack of diverse locations, unknown cast) into strengths and shows that independent horror is alive and well, and at times spectacularly bloody.