Starry Eyes (2014)
She would kill to be famous.
Five years before their recent remake of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, directing duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer made their first mark in horror circles with this low-budget, high-concept psychological journey down the spiral of ambition, compromise, and self-annihilation.
Starry Eyes centers on aspiring actress Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe), who we meet marking the days on the day job/ casting call treadmill on the lower echelons of the Los Angeles film industry. While her aspiring director friend Danny (Noah Segan) is putting together a low budget feature project with a role for her, she angles for a potentially higher profile part in The Silver Scream, a film being mounted by Astraeus Pictures, a rather shadowy production house that puts her through a series of increasingly strange and growingly repulsive ‘auditions.’
So far, so casting couch, but it’s interesting to note that Starry Eyes prefigures the official kickoff of the #MeToo movement by a good three years. We have, of course, always known what goes on behind closed doors in Tinseltown, but we tended to discuss it via metaphor and simile for fairly obvious and self-serving reasons.
For its part, Starry Eyes has a hell of metaphor: Astraeus Pictures, which becomes clear to us long before it dawns on the doomed Sarah, is a front for some kind of cult in the H.P. Lovecraft mode. It’s a bravura play, looking at the exploitative world inhabited by the rank and file Hollywood wannabes through a cosmic horror lens, postulating that selling yourself for fame and fortune is quite literal, and losing your soul is, well, losing your soul.
Starry Eyes doesn’t have the budget (Kickstarter provided the bulk of its funding) to present us with the depthless and ancient charnel vistas old Lovecraft evoked in his best work, nor even the modest mid-range pockets required to give us the effects work seen in previous pastiches like John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) or Martin Campbell’s Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). Making a virtue out of a limitation, the film instead puts us squarely and firmly in Sarah’s shoes, at first situating us exclusively in her point of view. Gradually and rather brilliantly, however, our point of view slips as Sarah sacrifices her sense of self to the whims of Astraeus, until we’re external to her experience, watching helplessly as someone we earlier knew intimately — who was, in effect, us in the world of the film — becomes something wholly Other.
It would be fascinating to know what conversations and experiences led Widmyer and Kölsch to this throughline, which could be read as a take on the alienation the unsuccessful can feel for the successful: by certain lights, Sarah gets what she wants, but from the (jealous? maybe) point of view of the film, that makes her something other than human. The rich are different, we’re told, and stars are forever separated from the common herd, so what does it say about us when we want to be them, want to be different, want to be separated? Are elevation and alienation the same thing?
For a relatively simple plot — ambitious girl sacrifices more soul than she bargained for — Starry Eyes offers up pleasing thematic complexity, wrapped in a haunting, verité-infused visual aesthetic. The glamour of Hollywood, like (most of) the inhuman horror the film teases us with, is kept offscreen. Instead, we’re dropped into the grimy, low-rent world of the hustlers and dreamers on the outskirts of The Dream, young up and comers living in vans, sharing apartments, fending off leering bosses and dead-eyed casting agents for a shot at the brass ring. Success in this milieu is almost mythical — it’s a folktale handed around late at night, how a guy somebody knew signed a deal with somebody else and is now somewhere far from the grime and the grind. If it can happen for them, it can happen for you, and who wouldn’t want that, and what wouldn’t they do?
The dark religion of Lovecraft and the dark religion of fame paralleled and intertwined. Starry Eyes is a gem.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson