191585-starry-eyes

Tinseltown Has Rarely Seemed More Terrifying Than in ‘Starry Eyes’

Starry Eyes presents a twilit world of hysterical ambition that would put Norma Desmond to shame.
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It’s a rare horror movie that concentrates on story and theme, but with style and scuzz and Satan, Starry Eyes is one such example. Set on Hollywood’s killing floor of auditions, casting couches, and dead end day jobs, it tells its tale of frenzied ambition not only with clear intelligence but with a bare-toothed glee. Consider it Kenneth Anger’s 115th dream — or, rather, make that his 666th dream.

Horror is one of the most heavily codified of cinema genres; each of its sub-genres features a particular set of tropes, conventions, and expectations which infiltrate nearly every aspect of the end text. It is a genre where form overwhelmingly trumps content. Take any number of exorcism movies, for example, where the story and the specificities of the characters inevitably become subjugated to the traditions of that sub-genre, the ritual, the familiar, distressed appearance of the possessed, the altered voice, and so on. The exorcism, with all its “movie exorcism” devices, takes center stage; everything else fades away. One could also take any of the innumerable found footage horror films made last year, where the entire point of the movie is the “jump scare”. The story becomes secondary to the demands of the genre.

One of the strengths of Starry Eyes is that it flips this common hierarchy. Horror is not the subject of the movie, but rather the means chosen by which to relate its story and associated themes. As such, it eschews any one sub-genre. Starry Eyes moves from Satanic cult movie to body horror to slasher with numerous tweaks to each along the way. For any genre fans whose main enjoyment is having their expectations met, Starry Eyes may be a disappointment.

Sarah Walker is a wannabe starlet who splits her time between acting lessons and a waitressing job at the excruciating Big Taters. (For fans of Eastbound and Down, imagine a “classy” version of Taters ‘N’ Tits. For everyone else: Hooters.) Her friends are in the same sinking showboat, millennials desperate to be actors or filmmakers, desperate for attention. They hang around their grim apartment complex, partying, drinking, and filming themselves.

Although apparently shy and diffident, when she gets an audition for a part in an upcoming production by the famous old but ailing horror studio Astraeus Pictures, we soon realize that Sarah may be the most desperate out of all of them. The question is posed: Who and what is she willing to become to realize her dreams? And of course, if the answer was “a better person”, then this would be A Star is Born and not a horror movie, one which gets nastier with each act.

For the most part, the film rejects clich√© for complexity. Sarah’s vulnerability is compelling as much as the frenzy of her ambition is alarming. Alex Essoe gives an excellent performance, presenting the audience with an anti-hero of sorts, whose dilemmas we can understand, but for whom we can never have full sympathy. Similarly, in a supporting role as Sarah’s boss at Big Taters, Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills, The Inn Keepers) ignores the obvious stock “sleazy boss” moves and offers up some humanity among the leering looks and Lumberghian pedantry.

Starry Eyes‘ audio-visuals fit its purpose and belie its budget, which was in part funded through a $50,000 USD Kickstarter campaign. Here, Los Angeles is a grimy, grey, twilit netherworld. There are few shots in sunlight, while Astraeus’ offices are classic old Hollywood, Stygian and foreboding. Jonathan Snipes’ score not only provides mood, but also functions to knit the disparate elements of the film together. It reflects the genre shifts made by Starry Eyes, as mentioned earlier, moving from a memorable twinkly music box motif to thumping synths, by turns suggestive of a supernatural tale and then something altogether more blood-spattered, reminiscent of an ’80s slasher flick. It fully deserves its own release on Waxworks Records.

While the slippiness of Starry Eyes‘ form cleverly mirrors its subject matter, the character of Sarah — her ambition and weakness, and the ends to which they drive her — ultimately provides the movie with the main source of its horror. The outcome is enough dread, sleaze, and heroic amounts of gore to satisfy horror fans of most denominations and dedications.

RATING 8 / 10

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