Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
The movie industry is obsessed with itself in ways that would be evidence of psychosis in just about any other industry. When it wants to pat itself on the back, we get movies like Argo that posit our movie makers as selfless heroes. When it wants to be nostalgic, we get Hugo, touting the history of films as something like a history of humanity itself. When it wants to make fun of itself, we get things like Hail, Caesar!, showing Hollywood to be a place of insane self-obsession and detached from reality. In its sardonic moods, we get The Player, which is everything Hail, Caesar! is turned nasty. So what happens when someone decides to take this sort of navel gazing and slip it into a horror movie? You get Starry Eyes.
Sarah (Alex Essoe) desperately wants to break into the movie business. She’s marking time working as a server in an exploitative Hooters-like restaurant called Big Taters. There are a few things that stand in her way. One is that most of her friends either aren’t supportive or actively subverting her goals. Erin (Fabianne Therese) actively goes on auditions that Sarah has done and attempts to steal her roles. Second is that she is a trichotillomaniac, pulling out her own hair in moments of stress. The only people in Sarah’s life who seem to care about her at all are her roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller), and Danny (Noah Segan), who talks about making a film and wanting Sarah to star in it.
By chance, Sarah sees an ad for a movie audition. The film, an obvious horror movie called The Silver Scream, is looking for people. It’s additionally intriguing because it is backed by a company called Astraeus Pictures, a sizable studio. Sarah’s audition doesn’t go the way she wants it to, and in frustration she heads off to the bathroom and submits to a bit of her hair pulling. This attracts the attention of the casting director (Maria Olsen), who brings her back into the audition room and asks her to repeat her bathroom performance. Sarah does, and is again summarily dismissed. She is brought back for a second audition and asked to go nude despite the role not requiring it. The rationale for this is that she is told she must open herself to her ability to “transform.” During these moments, she enters something like a trance and experiences a kind of surreal bliss.
It’s at her third audition, this time with the producer (Louis Dezseran), that things take a turn for the Hollywood stereotype; to get the role she is essentially told she has to have sex with the man. She leaves and confesses what happened to roommate Tracy. Frustrated by everything going on in her life, she returns to Astraeus and does the deed. From this point on, things are going to take a hard left turn into real horror. Sarah begins to physically transform, becoming more and more physically decrepit as the “transformation” she apparently started at her second audition and confirmed in her third begins to take hold.
Starry Eyes is one of those rare movies that does the slow burn well. There’s just enough weirdness and strangeness to keep things interesting for the first hour and then the weirdness and psychotic nature of Sarah’s experience make a sudden, deep dive into true horror. Things stay interesting for that first hour despite it feeling only slightly like a horror film until the third act. It plays much more like a psychological thriller for the first two acts, and one that at least has the potential to be good. When it does make the turn into the genre it wants to live in, it does this effectively because of how well the first two acts work.
In fact, there are only a few hints that are obvious in retrospect in the first hour that this is where we are going to go. Sure, it’s billed as a horror movie, so the audience knows where it’s going, but there are few indications that we’re going to go to some of the really nasty places we end up in the close. There are some very upsetting moments when Sarah finally accepts that she is transforming into something else, and the violence is brutal and nasty.
The question that Starry Eyes asks both explicitly and implicitly is “How far would you go to fulfill a dream?” It’s the dark side of the coin to many an uplifting drama about risking everything to make a dream come true. For every movie that paints a heartwarming story of an underdog fighting against all odds to achieve something noteworthy, Starry Eyes stands as a brutal, ugly counterpoint. Giving up everything can be an act of nobility or supreme sacrifice, but this film shows in graphic detail that it can also be an act of supreme selfishness and horror.
I have only a single knock on the film. It had to win me over from its opening moments because frankly, it looks shoddy in those first few moments. I realize that the film was made in part through funding brought in on Kickstarter. A little of that money should have gone to someone who could produce good titles. The opening titles of Starry Eyes look like a cheap slasher knock-off from the ‘70s, and so I was immediately on my guard. The film is good enough to overcome that, but not quite good enough to overcome the memory of that. For all I know, it was done as a sort of homage. If that’s the case, it was the wrong choice.
That said, Starry Eyes is about as good a modern horror movie as you’re going to come across. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t seen it yet, you’d be remiss not to track it down.
Why to watch Starry Eyes: It’s The Player turned as evil as possible.
Why not to watch: It’s a hard sell because the opening looks so cheap.