Starry Eyes is a new horror film from writer/director duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer that’s been unfairly sidelined to straight-to-DVD anonymity here in the UK (Not even a blu-ray? What the hell, Metrodome?). It’s a minor tragedy that deserves correction, as this is one of the most memorable and toe-curlingly visceral movie experiences of the last few years. Certainly one of the finest horrors and another superlative spotlight for a committed central performance from a female lead (Alex Essoe, going above and beyond the call of duty). Pick up a copy and slot it beside American Mary and Excision on your shelf of grade-A modern cult horrors showcasing spectacular young actresses. If other genres are failing in providing women with hefty lead roles, horror remains as fertile as ever.
Meet Sarah, a waitress and aspiring actress, eager for that big break that can transport her to Hollywood and the fêted elites of the movie business. We meet her assessing herself in the mirror, itemising her flaws. Oh, the narcissism of those hungry for fame! But she’s not quite made it to All About Eve glory yet (though her hipsterish friends are plenty catty enough already). When an audition for a renowned production company falls flat, Sarah reprimands herself in the bathroom by pulling out chunks of her hair – a masochistic habit we’ve witnessed already even before the opening credits are dispensed with. She is discovered doing so by the kooky casting director (half of a pair more suited to a League Of Gentlemen side-sketch). Sarah is surprised, however, when her self-destructive behaviour gets her a call-back. On her second audition she is encouraged to expose herself even further. And though tentative, Sarah soon throws herself into it; abandoning herself to the abyss.
Further debasement awaits. It all leads, with some inevitability, to the casting couch; Hollywood’s hoariest, yet most grimly believable hurdle. In certain respects this marks the low ebb of Sarah’s ability to compromise herself to obtain her dreams. The reality is horrific enough. Yet this act triggers an altogether terrifying second half; an occult downward spiral of horrifying physical changes which can be viewed literally as supernatural metamorphosis, or metaphorically as the grotesque rot of guilt and self-hatred transforming Sarah beyond her control.
It’s interesting that, in the same year that Cronenberg turned his gaze on Hollywood and delivered a cool, bitter satire, that his ardent up’n’coming followers are addressing the same subject from the Canadian auteur’s old stomping grounds; body horror. Starry Eyes pulls no punches in that regard, and Sarah’s grotesque changes are wince-enducing and unflinching. Kolsch and Widmyer audit Sarah’s collapse with a grimness that even threatens to tip the film into misery-porn were it not for the vice-like suspense at how far this is all going to go. The butterfly that finally emerges from this process represents a thrilling and memorable new addition to horror’s pantheon of monsters.
Perhaps more than Cronenberg, however, the shadow of David Lynch falls over Starry Eyes. Not in terms of narrative malleability or tonal lovesickness, but rather elements recall Lynch motifs like flashbacks; the camerawork and general strung-out vibe echoes that of Inland Empire at times, and Sarah’s fall from grace echoes that of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive to a degree, while Louis Dezseran’s scene-stealing turn as the sleazy Producer could be a fractured relation of BOB-inhabited Leland Palmer. The film’s herky-jerky music box theme keys in on another reference; the ever-popular John Carpenter scores of yesteryear. What’s crucial, however, is that while Kolsch and Widmyer aren’t subtle with their cinematic reference points, they’re not wholly beholden to them either. Starry Eyes is confident enough to exist on its own terms. For horror fans looking for something that feels genuinely thrilling, this is going to prove to be one of the year’s essential films, even as it offers fun easter eggs (such as modern indie horror mainstay Pat Healy in a small but enjoyable role).
How much of Starry Eyes is victimisation? Sarah is certainly used by the occult characters at the studio to further their own greedy ends, but she quite readily places herself in harm’s way in pursuit of her career. Starry Eyes is unquestionably damning of a system that perpetuates such exploitation, but it doesn’t ignore how culpable society at large is for producing a culture in which sexual favors for career enhancement is still a genuine demon. The nature of celebrity is seductive enough to Sarah that she ultimately accepts the stakes, even if she doesn’t fully appreciate the immediate emotional fallout to come. Her and her friends already live in a world that they view as a perpetual paparazzi opportunity. When a drunken girl collapses at a party, a spectator is heard to note “nip slip” out-loud. The degradation of fame has become, disturbingly, part of the appeal. The fate of Sarah’s friends only underlines the anonymity of obscurity.
“I’m not a million other girls,” Sarah tells her boss when her job is on the line. The pessimistic suggestion throughout Starry Eyes as events take their terrible turn is that, actually, she just might be one of thousands. Starry Eyes is an altogether nasty piece of work and all the better for it. And at the centre of it all is Essoe, boldly establishing herself. Ironically, this might just be her star-maker.
I’ve seen the second half of the film labelled redundant after the first. I didn’t find that to be the case. Rather it externalises an inner shame that comes from realising you’ve trespassed on your own moral code. Kolsch and Widmyer’s chosen genre to explore this in is horror. And they do so with gusto.
Starry Eyes is out on DVD and VOD in the UK on March 16th.