Written and Directed by: Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, and Noah Segan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Dreams require sacrifice--and so do they.
If its contradictory reputation is any indication, Hollywood is a fascinating place. Simultaneously a land of hopes and dreams and an unforgiving hellscape that consumes those same ambitions, it’s both alluring and horrifying. Bless anyone who gives it a shot and especially bless those damned souls who never make it: the Hills and the Valley swarm with the ghosts of those it chewed up and spit out. Starry Eyes is about a woman who refuses to become one of those ghosts and instead becomes a wraith. With fame within her grasp, she goes to shocking lengths to grip it—even if it means squeezing the life out of her own dignity in the process.
When we meet Sarah (Alex Essoe), she’s already haunted by various specters: by the obsession of a perfect body image, by the hot pants she has to squeeze into for her exploitative job, and by the very real possibility that she’s simply not going to make it. Each audition is akin to her clinging to the side of a mountain before she falls and plunges into the obscurity of a permanent gig as a waitress. One last glimmer of hope catches her once starry eyes when B-movie production company Astraeus Pictures puts out a call for its latest horror film. In her desperation, she ignores the creepiness of an audition that has her lay bare her private anguish; when her follow-up asks her to bare more than her soul, she reluctantly agrees, a decision that sends her spiraling down a destructive path where fame is only secured with blood.
Starry Eyes is a fantastic parable about the perils of fame culture. Even before it introduces some obviously supernatural elements, it’s an unsettling portrait of a soul shredded by broken dreams. Sarah is at a low point in her life: surrounded by false friends and catty rivals and slumming it in a humiliating job, her life feels like a funeral procession of indignities, with a pallor constantly hanging over her very step. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer pry into her intimate moments: the half-disgusted glances she gives to her body in the mirror, the frustrated tearing at her own hair in the bathroom after a disappointed audition, the devastating moment she realizes her dream requires a humiliating sacrifice. If Starry Eyes were just a disturbing exploration of the unseemly casting couch tactics employed by depraved producers, it’d still be hellacious and incisive unpeeling of the Hollywood underbelly, where dreams go to die—unless you’re willing to be reborn.
Once Sarah chooses the latter, Starry Eyes plunges into allegory. With her soul rotting, her body follows suit in grotesque display of decay as sinister forces encroach upon her. Her transformation is both a remarkable and revolting horror show of thinning hair, mysterious bleeding, fingernail tearing (the MPAA should issue a specific warning for that shit), and worm vomiting. The astonishing effects work evokes a physical response, obviously, but it’s Essoe’s haunting, chameleonic performance that truly registers and anchors Starry Eyes. For most of the film, she carries herself with the weight of a weary starlet who’s been teetering on the edge for years. Watching her stare into the abyss before falling in is heartbreaking in both its physical and metaphysical implications. By the time she’s crashing down with the wave, you feel more for her lost soul than you do her body, and that’s a testament to Essoe and her directors’ commitment to ensuring Sarah is more than an avatar for their twisted fable.
Most directors would be content to track this moral and physical decay and leave it at that, but Kolsch and Widmyer continue to push their film down an even weirder path. After sacrificing her dignity at the altar of fame, Sarah becomes a twisted shade driven by jealously and paranoia, a turn that requires more bizarre imagery and outrageous bloodshed. Starry Eyes features one of the most heinous bludgeonings captured on screen, yet it’s not what lingers. Rather, it’s Essoe’s complete metamorphosis into a plasticine red carpet idol with dead eyes and an even deader soul. Sarah embodies what she both worships and despises in one hollowed out shell of a body: she’s fit for both the marquee and hell itself after rising from the ashes of a gory fever dream.
Sifting through those ashes also reveals a sly movie industry commentary wherein Los Angeles slays itself. Hollywood is pointedly in the distance for the most part, as most of the action is set in its eerier suburbs, where Sarah and her pack of millennial acquaintances dream an awful lot about success without actually committing to making it happen. Instead, a group of wannabe starlets (including Sarah’s catty rival, played by Fabianne Therese) and a slacker director (Noah Segan) hang out in grungy apartments and lounge by the pool.
At first glance, it feels like an indictment of this scene, but Kolsch and Widmyer cleverly manipulate your sympathies towards them. It slowly becomes clear that Astraeus’s sleazy producer isn’t just preying on Sarah, who becomes something of a sleeper agent cutting down this pack of would-be indie darlings on behalf of the Hollywood mogul machine. Starry Eyes is a biting satire about both fame and its gatekeepers, here re-imagined as a sinister cabal headed by a producer who’s like Roger Corman by way of Anton LaVey. Good luck breaking into Hollywood when it requires pounds upon pounds of flesh.
Starry Eyes is a terrifying, revolting, and smart critique of ambition, with its most skin-crawlingly accurate observation revealing how women struggle just to be ambitious. As either an actress or a scantily-clad waitress, Sarah is subjected to degrading behavior by a male superior, be it a scumbag producer or a condescending manager extolling the virtues of a place called Big Taters. She’s trapped in a pit of despair before she encounters a cult that destroys her life, eternally damned by her desire to improve her station in life. Starry Eyes isn’t about thwarted ambition so much as it’s about those institutional forces that thwart it and co-opt it for their own means and desires. You can’t overreach when someone’s lopped off your arm and used it to stab your friends to death.
Considering the somewhat barren landscape that was wide-release horror in 2014, it’s dismaying that Starry Eyes was relegated to a limited release and VOD platforms once it departed the festival circuit. For those of us still clinging to physical media who have heard its praises sung for nearly a year now, it’s arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Dark Sky. The disc features a presentation without any notable flaws—they’ve even gone so far as to offer both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless tracks for optimal performance (you’ll appreciate that Jonathan Snipes’s evocative score is especially well-rendered). Headlining the supplements is a commentary with Kolsch, Widmyer, and producer Travis Stevens, which is joined by ten deleted scenes, Essoe’s audition tape, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, a trailer, and a music video.
Of course, it’s fitting that Starry Eyes wasn’t snapped up by a big studio; unlike its protagonist, it’s uncompromising, which makes it dangerous and transgressive. That also makes it the best kind of horror movie, too. Buy it!
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