Friday, February 20, 2015
Cult Movie Review: Starry Eyes (2015)
Starry Eyes (2015) is one half a great horror movie.
The film -- which originated from a successful Kickstarter campaign -- is set in Hollywood and follows a struggling actress, Sarah, as she attempts to find fame and fortune at any price.
The first half of Starry Eyes proves absolutely remarkable as the directors, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, mine this material for all its social and entertainment value.
As audience members we are forced to reckon with the underbelly of Tinsel Town, one character’s relentless quest for fame, and the indignities she willingly suffers in its name.
I should add, too, that the actress who undertakes this journey as our protagonist, Alexandra Essoe, is remarkable.
Essoe does a convincing and sympathetic job playing Sarah, and we ache for the character, and the choice she makes. The film’s great gift is that, at one point, Sarah realizes that she is already prostituting herself by working a humiliating minimum wage job. So why not prostitute herself for what she really wants…an acting career?
Her logic is inescapable, if icy. In the same situation, would we choose any differently?
But, finally, Starry Eyes (2015) descends into a series of gory murders and becomes an all-too familiar body horror type film. Sarah makes a deal with devil worshipers and in doing so, sacrifices her “body" for her career (if not her art).
Sarah’s horrific and sustained physical disintegration reminds me a great deal of another independent horror film I reviewed last year, Contracted (2013).
Basically, in both movies, we watch a female character we like physically disintegrate and suffer for the last half-hour of the film, in substitution of a resolution that would clarify the plot, or illuminate further the character’s journey.
Instead, we we see characters peeling off their finger-nails and bleeding through their underpants.
They fall apart before our eyes, at great duration, as gore substitutes for a third act.
So Starry Eyes is, finally, a bit of a falling star. The first hour is terrific: pointed, smart, and caustic.
The last half-hour is formulaic and familiar, crashing to Earth with a thud, effects substituting for inspiration and ideas.
“Why do you pull your beautiful hair out?”
In Hollywood, an aspiring -- but desperate -- young actress, Sarah (Essoe) works a day job at a Big Taters restaurant while hoping to audition for a significant part, one that could propel her to stardom.
Worse, she must compete with friends ike Erin (Fabianne Therese), who is rooting for Sarah to fail, so she can succeed in her place.
One day, Sarah lands an audition for an Astraeus Production, a horror movie called The Silver Scream. Sarah bombs her first audition in front of two cruel casting agents, and proceeds to have a fit in a nearby rest-room stall. She pulls her hair out and screams, and the agents -- tantalized by her actions -- agree to see her again.
Sarah is asked to strip naked and “let go” in her next audition.
Then, Sarah is called to meet the producer (Louis Dezseran) of the film, a creepy old man who makes a sexual advance. Sarah refuses his overture and leaves the meeting, but comes to wish she had gone along.
Sarah returns to the producer’s house and begs for a second chance. He readily agrees, and Sarah takes part in a strange sex ritual with devil worshipers.
Afterwards, she grows terminally ill, and her body begins to fall apart. The producer assures Sarah that this is all part of the process of being re-born as a “star…”
“I will do whatever it takes for this role.”
There’s a moment of blunt, matter-of-fact logic and honesty in Starry Eyes. Working at Big Taters in a skin-tight outfit, under the thumb of a lascivious, demanding boss, Sarah realizes she has already sold out.
“I kind of feel like I’m selling my soul already,” she reports to her friends. “Why not do it for something I love?”
In other words, why not submit to casting couch tactics and sex with the producer, if such activity makes Sarah a star?
She’s already selling her soul for a low-paying, humiliating job. She sells out every single day. Yet to society at large, this is absolutely acceptable.
Still, the film depicts the business owner at Big Tater as a total asshole, one who gets his jollies from controlling Sarah and eyeing her up in skin-tight pants. And he's not offering her a big payday, just a life-time of subjugation and hard work. In a way he's even asking for her soul too. She should appreciate him, he demands. He has a great vision for the restaurant, and he's letting her be a part of it!
It’s rare that any movie makes a point like this -- one that questions the very basis of society and the value of certain types of work -- yet it is completely valid in terms of Starry Eyes, if not, ultimately, a good plan for Sarah.
For the producer turns out to be not just a pervert, but a demonic pervert, and I suppose that makes all the difference.
Sarah is asked not merely to prostitute herself, but literally to sell her soul for fame. For a lot of aspiring talents in Hollywood -- in-front of and behind-the-camera -- this is how such temptation feels: a devil's bargain.
Why not do just one little thing (like perform oral sex) to get what you want? To escape forever the drudgery and part-time, low-paying jobs?
Do it once, and you're done. You never have to do it again.
That's the devil whispering in your ear, though!
Who's to say what happens after the first time?
What do you do the second time you're up for a big or important role? If you sell out once, what's to prevent you from selling out again?
The producer's pitch seems logical, reasonable even given the fast food alternative. But there are no happy endings here.
Once you de-value yourself, there's no going back.
Of course, the demon producer makes this scenario all the worse for Sarah. He reminds Sarah what a “great opportunity” she is being given. He defines her as a “do-er” and notes that the “world is about do-ers.”
Basically, Sarah gets to the point that she thinks maybe it is “worth it” just to cave and give the producer a blow-job.
While Starry Eyes charts moral dilemmas like this one, especially in such a sympathetic and well-considered way, it really works well. It has significant impact.
We share Sarah’s sense of desperation, especially in light of the fact that all her friends are vultures, waiting to swoop in and steal any crumbs she leaves on the table. They claim to be “joking” when they are mean to her, and make her feel shame for considering the producer’s officer.
“You don’t wish that you did it, do you?” a roommate asks.
Hell yes, Sarah should say.
And they're just all jealous they weren't in the room to get the same opportunity.
Starry Eyes also does a sterling job of showcasing what a meat market Hollywood can be.
The casting agents face a room of hopeful, optimistic young women, knowing that they have total and complete power over them. There are, literally, millions of them. They are...cattle.
“I’m not a million other girls,” Sarah notes at one point, but that is a distinction no one else sees…at least at first; at least until her penchant for self-abuse and self-degradation registers with Astraeus.
For its first hour, Starry Eyes convincingly suggests that to succeed in Hollywood you have to sell your soul, or at least your body.
For the first hour, it is masterful in the way that it utilizes horror tropes (like demon worshipers) to make its point.
The last half-hour of the film could be interpreted as a continuation of that idea. Sarah becomes super , hyper anorexic to get a role, I guess you could argue, willing to destroy her body for fame.
This too is something that performers go through to get just the right look, or to be at exactly the right weight in time for shooting. But as Sarah’s body falls apart and she turns murderous, the movie also falls apart.
Here's the point: I believe that these demon worshipers may be able to assure Sarah fame and fortune for the cost of her soul. That’s not difficult, since this is a horror movie. It’s more difficult to believe, however, that she can commit bloody murder after bloody murder without leaving evidence that would lead police straight to her, thus destroying her career as a starlet.
Also, nobody seems to react very much when they see Sarah’s deteriorating physical condition. And that condition gets worse over a period of days, not hours.
The movie lingers on the nasty physical side-effects of Sarah’s membership/possession, but not on the details that make the narrative seem convincing or plausible.
In short, I just never found it credible here that Sarah could go through this whole process, leaving a trail of dead bodies, and still get what she wants out of the deal. Too many people know where she lives, and who she is friends with.
As soon as she is famous, TMZ will be all over her past, and it won’t be long before everything comes crashing down around her.
Finally, the effects take center stage in Starry Eyes. Fortunately, they are good. Bloody good, in fact.
But ultimately they are no substitute for the film’s through-line about fame and fortune, and the “ugliness of the human spirit,” especially in regards to Sarah. She is faced with her own ugliness; that she would kill friends and sell her soul to be successful.
Not talented. Not a great actress. Successful.
So Starry Eyes is brilliant in its first half, and repetitive and dull, if viscerally bloody, in its final act.
Like Sarah, it could have left a “lasting impression” in its choice to go, eyes open, against a dog-eat-dog industry that is often exploitative.
Instead, it took the easy way out: story resolution by blood and guts.
Talk about selling your soul...