Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer crowdfunded part of their Los Angeles-set horror film Starry Eyes, and the end result exemplifies the best hope for that platform by pulling no punches in its violent thrills. Drawing upon the surreal tradition and body horror of masters before them, they take their ingenue to the brink in a violent rebirth that realises the grimy, blood-letting affair of star-making in Hollywood.
Sarah (Alex Essoe) is stuck chasing an all-too-common acting dream. She goes to countless auditions and never gets so much as a callback. She works at a Hooter’s knock-off to pay rent, where her lusty boss treats her like garbage. Her friends are also hungry for stardom, and they’re working to get it… in whatever dubious few minutes they’re not boozing and bullshitting. One crappy audition later and Sarah has had it. She throws a fit in the bathroom, screaming and literally ripping out her own hair. This gets the producers’ attention, and then a callback to the studio. She’s stunned and overjoyed at first, but the producers make increasingly perverse demands, egging her to lose herself in their artifice and become the transcendent being they’re looking for. Her friends hear about the things she’s done, and dissuade her from chasing the job any further, but she ignores them, initially out of desperate superiority, but eventually the same primal lust for glory that made her rip strands out of her skull. Sarah soon finds herself straddling two different worlds: one that yields only vanity and beleaguerment, and one that gives her everything she has ever wanted at a terrible cost.
Both complement each other wonderfully, though. Kolsch and Widmyer put their budget to incredible use in building their surreal view of Los Angeles. Gray mists cover the gentrified blocks in atmospheric shots scored John Carpenter-style by Jonathan Snipes (Room 237), and everything in Adam Bricker’s cinematography is cast in a welcome shade of foreboding, right down to Sarah’s hideous diamante work pants. Bricker really goes to town in night and dark scenes, with the showpiece being a flashbulb-powered sequence that’s both voyeuristic and repulsive. This sets us up wonderfully for the lurid spectacle that comes later, which will turn many a stomach in its extreme bloodlust and detail.1
What grounds all the gore is a smartly-laid foundation of relatability. Essoe is a hypnotic lead who makes her early insecurities real, even as she plays the character playing other people. The script gives her a strong backbone, lending credence to all her decisions and doubts by blurring the line between the soul-sucking tedium of the real world and the literal equivalent behind the doors of Astraeus Pictures. This carefully nudges Sarah into her heaviest choices, which then result in Essoe having to tap into a more sickening physicality, and she steps way up to that challenge amid some stellar effects work led by Matt Falletta. The supporting players are also game, including Noah Segan as a perfectly-pitched douchebag, Pat Healy as Sarah’s slimy restaurant boss, and the cadre of sinister studio heads played with demonic relish by Louis Dezseran, Marian Olsen and Marc Senter.2 It’s undoubtedly the Essoe show all the way through, however, and stronger for it.
Capping the film’s quality is its unovert use of varying feminities and female agency. If Sarah is ever a victim, it’s of her own deliberate choices and worldview, which others certainly tempt but never force her into. The aforementioned relatability is bolstered by compelling social dynamics between her and other female characters, including her concerned roommate (Natalie Castillo), a jealous friend (Fabianne Theresse) who drops sinisterly passive-aggressive quips, and the Astraeus casting director (Olsen) who speaks with a creepy, idiosyncratic tenor. Its setting means that it does capitulate to male power dynamics eventually, but this feels strictly necessary to sustain the conceit and never out of indulgence. Still, the genre’s archetypes rarely accommodate that kind of diversity, so Starry Eyes should be applauded for achieving it in a story that so readily benefits from it.3
It’s serendipitous for MonsterFest to bring Starry Eyes to Australian screens this week, because the director it invites several comparisons to has a new film of his own landing not just at the same time but on the same subject matter. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is reportedly delving into dark absurdism within the itself-absurd context of the Hollywood complex, but Starry Eyes tears strips from it with the same flesh-hungry gusto that fuelled his most infamous films. It thankfully breaks free from the comparison by injecting its concerns with a more contemporary sensibility, and grounding its sickening violence with an electric lead performance and real-world parallels. Most importantly, it’s a total thrill that’s bound to play well to the festival crowd.
Starry Eyed plays on the 29th of November as part of Monster Fest at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. Tickets are available here.