Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: Starry Eyes (2014)

Starry Eyes (2014)

Not rated

Score: 4 out of 5

A film that's become awfully timely in light of the latest scandal rocking Hollywood, Starry Eyes is another one of those "low-budget indie horror flicks that could" that's attracted the attention of genre fans in the last few years. It is not a particularly easy watch, but that's not because it's a bad film, far from it. No, this has more in common with The Neon Demon or Black Swan than anything, with its combination of lurid sexuality, graphic violence, and psychological horror, all in service of a story about the pressures of the world of art and entertainment taking an agonizing toll on a young woman. It is a brutal film, but it is definitely a worthwhile watch if you can make it through.

Our heroine is Sarah Walker, a twentysomething in Los Angeles who would describe herself as an actress, even though she actually works as a waitress at a Hooters-like restaurant while her roommate Tracy wonders when she's gonna come through on her side of the rent money. Her personality is about what you'd expect from that description; while she values her friends and has her standards, and comes across as fairly naive initially, she's also rather stuck-up and conceited, with ample room to grow into a raging egomaniac should she actually get her breakthrough part. That seemingly comes when an audition for a leading role in a horror movie at Astraeus Pictures wins her a callback and then an appointment with the producer, only for things to go from zero to Harvey Weinstein in a heartbeat and for Sarah to return home in tears refusing to talk about it. Eventually, however, as she's faced with going back to her dead-end job and being stuck doing crappy, no-budget indie films with her wannabe-filmmaker friend, she decides that putting her dignity aside is worth it if it means becoming the star that she knows she can be... only to find that the casting couch is merely the least of what is demanded of her. It turns out that there is a lot more to Astraeus Pictures than the glamorous studio that exists on the surface.

This is a film about a person's descent into madness and the belly of the beast, and it would not have worked at all if they did not have an actor in the lead part who was ready, willing, and able to fully sell that every step of the way. Fortunately, the makers of this film found that in Alex Essoe. Beautiful in a Hollywood central casting way, Essoe's Sarah starts the film increasingly frustrated by her lack of success in "the biz", literally pulling her hair out in fits. She seems overjoyed once she gets the part, but once things start going horribly wrong in the second half of the film, she dives straight into a pit of the grotesque as her body grows increasingly corrupted by the influence of what she's gotten herself into -- only steeling her determination to push through to the other side and become a star. Essoe is dazzling in this film, willing to go very far in the dark places she takes Sarah to -- not unlike Sarah's own journey, come to think of it (albeit not quite as bad) -- and ready for everything that the film throws at her. I was not surprised when I took a look at her IMDb page and saw a laundry list of horror films lined up for her, as in a just world, this film would establish her as a "scream queen" in the making. They needed a phenomenal actress, and Essoe pulled it off with flying colors, treading a fine line between making Sarah sympathetic in the first half of this film and making her seem like somebody who'd be willing to do the things she does in the second half.

What sells Sarah's transformation beyond just Essoe's performance is how writers/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer juxtapose it with how normal her other friends are. While Sarah is slipping past the event horizon, her roommate Tracy, her indie director friend Danny, her boss Carl, and all the others around her are still living their lives like normal, noticing that Sarah is growing increasingly sick but not realizing just how out-of-control things are getting in her life. Putting the two together, we see how Sarah's big break has started to alienate her from her "ordinary" friends, her concerns altogether alien from theirs. While Tracy is shocked to find out that the producer wanted to have sex with Sarah before he gave her the part, and tells Sarah that she was right to walk out on him then and there, Sarah has second thoughts before coming to see it as an acceptable sacrifice upon the altar of fame. It is implied that her growing lust for stardom and resulting alienation from her friends is at least partly supernatural in origin, the influence of the studio corrupting her mind, but it's just as clear that this is what she wanted right from the start, that she saw herself as better than her current station in life with Astraeus Pictures only giving her the push that she needed. People like her, of course, are a goldmine for people like those at Astraeus Pictures. This film may be more fantastic, but it's still a biting commentary on how people sell their souls to "make it" in Hollywood, and how the desire for fame that so many people have can transform them into monsters. One could apply it to any profession that puts people in the public eye, from politics to journalism; in fact, given how many YouTube stars lately have been making asses of themselves, I bet that it's only a matter of time before a film like this one is made about internet celebrity. (Maybe more of a zombie film in that case.)

Stories about how celebrity ain't what it's cracked up to be may date back to the first person to become famous, but this film's supernatural take on the matter helps it stand out. Kolsch and Widmyer are pretty clearly influenced by filmmakers like Dario Argento, and their direction is filled with style that makes life in Hollywood look both glamorous and foreboding. Our scenes with Sarah before she "wins the part", set in her plain apartment and workplace, are contrasted with the glamorous mansions and studio offices where we start to see the true face of Astraeus Pictures, an institution littered with imagery straight out of a '70s Satanic/witchcraft horror flick even before the men and women in strange masks and robes start coming out. It is a very striking film in both its visuals and in its synth-heavy score, something that I've noticed has been a trend among a lot of independent horror flicks lately; at any rate, I'm not complaining. It's a film that I would not be surprised to see stills and clips of borrowed by some YouTube conspiracy theorist trying to make some point about the Illuminati reptilian vampires running Hollywood. (On that note, I really hope that crowd doesn't discover and ruin this film.)

The Bottom Line

It ultimately didn't quite go over-the-top into "classic" territory, but this is still an inventive film that tells an old story with a horror twist, courtesy of an outstanding lead performance from Alex Essoe, an actress who I'd love to see more of in the future. I may have came for the timely plot, but I stayed for the style, the performances, and the dark places it ventures into.

No comments:

Post a Comment