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New Release Review - Starry Eyes (DVD)

An aspiring actress goes to extreme lengths to land a role in a low budget horror film.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Starring: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Pat Healy


Starry Eyes opens with blood red credits on a black screen, the titles playing over an enigmatic soundtrack of ragged breathing interspersed with rapturous applause. This disquieting sound design sets the film’s thematic stage: to wit, the parasitic symbiosis between unconditional fame and the souls sold in order to achieve it. With a smash cut, the film explicitly links this keynote to aspiring actress Sarah (Alexandra Essoe), presenting her near naked in front of the mirror, agonising over her (practically flawless) figure and willowy looks; the camera inviting us to also judge and evaluate her appearance. What follows is a bleak character study of ambition and celebrity aspiration, as Sarah is slowly drawn in to the seedy underworld of dark Hollywood.
Already clearly damaged (we see her literally tearing at her hair in self-loathing), events become even stranger for Sarah as she receives an invite to audition for a horror film, the wording of which –‘Can you put your inner being on the screen?’- develops creepy and apposite implications as the film unspools. Sarah gets the part, but finds that her physical and psychological character is to be tested by the cryptic producers of The Silver Scream, who seem to be working from a different, darker script to their lead actress.
Starry Eyes is a film of expressive interiors; Sarah’s home is a shared accommodation rife with clutter, the gaudy restaurant where she works (a take on the ridiculous Hooters franchise) is headache inducing, and the dark stages and shadowy back rooms which insinuate Sarah's career are deeply sinister. This is backstage Hollywood; completely bereft of glamour, as flat and hollow as a disused film set, where fame is as grimy and false as greasepaint. Throughout Starry Eyes we are never given a detailed explanation for Sarah’s dedication to fame: she simply wants it, at all costs. In an age of social media, where validation is mediated by likes and follows and retweets, there is no need for clarification: Sarah’s craving for endorsement through others is a modern affliction writ large, giving her motivations a bitter credibility.
Sarah is not alone in her dreams. Her social group is composed of aspirant film makers and actors, competitive wannabes who disparage each other behind their backs and immediately resent Sarah’s ostensible success. The iconography here is pure hipster; wispy beards, floaty dresses and a barely hidden insecurity concerning one’s relevance and importance to the culture. DoP Adam Bricker’s camera compliments the hollow relationship between the characters, keeping a staid distance from proceedings by choosing pensive long and medium shots of the action. He creates a dingy and flat look, but also agitates with subtle handheld quivers, fashioning a cinematography that unnerves with its tattered glamour.
It is Essoe’s film all the way though. In her first major role, she gives a performance that is deeply impressive and richly polysemic, with the actress often executing up to three conflicting aspects of her character at the same time. This is strikingly evident in the moments of the audition, wherein Sarah performs the role given in character, presenting as confident to the casters, but with her vulnerability nonetheless achingly clear to us. As Sarah’s psychology dissolves, Essoe is utterly compelling. There is also the added layer that ingĂ©nue Sarah is herself a character played by a relatively unknown real life actress, and the meta-discomfort conjured from this aspect of Starry Eyes gives the film much of its authentic unpleasantness (when character Sarah is uneasy being undressed, it is, of course, actor Essoe’s actual bare body that we see). Reviews have implied that Starry Eyes is Mulholland Drive by way of Cronenberg, but the film it mainly recalls is 1966’s Persona (by way of Rosemary’s Baby, if you must): with that film’s slow, inexorable dissolution of Liv Ullman’s actress character, and commentary on the dispersive transaction of pretending to be someone other (‘if you can’t let yourself go, how can you fully transform into something else?’, a producer threatens Sarah at one point).
However, the film is a much more visceral proposition than Bergman’s masterpiece. As the occult element of the film encroaches, the extreme violence and body horror of the film’s final act is startlingly graphic. Utilising practical effects that astound with their grim realism, the final scenes of Starry Eyes are especially nasty and will jolt even the most jaded of horror fans. For this reviewer at least, the experience of watching Starry Eyes was an unforgiving one, as for all of the film’s notable features - Essoe, the malodorous atmosphere, Jonathan Snipes’ exquisite and evocative score - Starry Eyes is perhaps too bleak and unremitting: the prolonged humiliations and subsequent breakdown of Sarah eventually depresses. Of course, no horror film sets out to cheer the spirit, but the good ones should aspire to use their transgressions to reflect an aspect of the human condition. Ultimately, for all its portentousness, Starry Eyes doesn’t have much more to offer than the timeworn observation that Hollywood is a bit Faustian, an insight as similarly glib to those dopey (but admittedly intriguing) youtube conspiracy videos detailing a supposed Illuminati control of the entertainment industry.
As a mean spirited yet well-crafted dialogue about the craft of acting however, Starry Eyes is an interesting addition to a canon that includes Sunset Boulevard and the recent Birdman. There is plenty to recommend here, but be warned: Starry Eyes leaves the silver screen decidedly tarnished.




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