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Friday, 17 April 2015

Starry Eyes: A sharp horror satire that puts the boot into Hollywood


Review

Starry Eyes
Directors: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan
Running time: 98 mins


This whip-smart and gruesome horror flick has certainly come in under the radar. It was shown last August as part of the Film4 FrightFest in London but never got a UK cinema release. Instead, it slunk into stores as a budget-priced DVD last month with little or no obvious fanfare. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have known of its existence at all had I not seen a glowing full-page review in Total Film magazine which called it “grisly, twisted and surprisingly sad”.

Partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign which raised more than $50,000 two years ago, Starry Eyes is a Hollywood takedown that pulls no punches in its desire to skewer the movie industry’s diseased modus operandi – especially the dehumanising and humiliating lengths to which young actors and actresses must go to land a part, and the way these hurtful experiences inform the kind of people they become as they ascend stardom’s greasy pole. Ambition is the rocket fuel that can propel you to the highest high but it’s also your enemy because all that adulation and cash comes at a terrible price. Fame, fame, fatal fame indeed…

In Starry Eyes, struggling young actress Sarah (the excellent Alex Essoe) bags an audition for a cheesy-sounding scary movie called The Silver Scream but as the requirements of winning the role become more and more extreme she bails on the enterprise... only to return at her lowest ebb in a moment of weakness. As a result of her sexual assignation with The Producer (a brilliantly creepy Louis Dezseran, channelling Ray Wise’s Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks) she soon becomes sick in mind, body and soul. Sarah – hair falling out, skin sallow and blistered – thinks she’s dying but she’s wrong... she’s about to be reborn.

Often, in even the best horror films, lead characters tend to be underwritten; who needs depth and subtlety when it’s all about the gore and monsters, right? Starry Eyes rejects that notion and is all the better for it. Sarah, who works in a demeaning Hooters-style fast-food outlet called “Big Taters” between auditions, is a persuasive study in frustration and self-loathing. She rips chunks of her hair out when things don’t go her way and that seems to be happening more frequently as her desperation and vulnerability grow. Her blood is in the water and the sharks are circling in the form of The Producer and the Astraeus – the weird, shadowy cult he leads, who definitely (wink, wink) aren’t an analogue for scientologists (wink, wink) in any way, shape or form (wink, wink). Essoe sells her character’s mix of mental frailty and grim determination perfectly, making her eventual debasement all the more gruelling and heartbreaking.



The satire in Starry Eyes is of the blunt instrument variety and the film makes an enjoyably scabrous companion piece with David Cronenberg’s subtler but every-bit-as-bleak Maps to the Stars. In fact, with its body horror and nihilist edge, it’s exactly the kind of picture the great man would have made early on in his career. For first-time writer/directors Kölsch and Widmyer, the only way you get on in La La Land is by sacrificing your humanity (literally), destroying the competition, and surrendering yourself utterly to the monstrous movie-making machine. It’s a Faustian pact that even Faust would have baulked at and you do wonder what terrible experiences the pair endured to reach this kind of conclusion about the industry in which they work.

Ironically, of course, Kölsch and Widmyer’s anti-Hollywood tirade is actually pretty likely to make them a hot property… in Hollywood.

If bits of Cronenberg and Lynch are clearly visible in Starry Eyes’ DNA (you’ll find chunks of Italian Giallo masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava too), the film Starry Eyes reminds me of most is Society (see trailer below). Brian Yuzna’s grotesque body-horror masterpiece from 1989 posited the idea the super-rich were monstrous, inhuman creatures capable of great cruelty and perversion. Starry Eyes covers similar ground – just swap super-rich with Hollywood royalty – although it contains nothing quite as gut-punch shocking as the climactic scene in Society that became its calling card. 

Rating: WWWW

Starry Eyes is available on DVD now


Ratings

WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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