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starry-eyes-poster

Just how far would you go to be a star? For some folks, the idea of fame doesn’t have much appeal: they’re more than happy to conduct their business from the sidelines, keeping cool while someone else burns under the spotlight. For others, however, the pursuit of fame is all-encompassing, a never-ending quest for that fabled brass ring, that opportunity to stand on the world stage, hold their heads up high and shout, “Here I am,” to bask in adulation, admiration and envy from the masses. We live in an era where people can become famous, if only briefly, for seemingly capricious reasons: one person uploads a YouTube video and receives a million views…their next-door-neighbor does the same thing and hears crickets. Despite how important fame is for so many people, there is no such thing as a “sure thing,” no unbeatable formula to becoming a star.

But what if there was? What if there was some way to ensure your celebrity, some sure-fire way to “jump the line,” as it were, and go straight to the “adoring fans” stage? If fame is so important, would you give up everything in your life – your friends, your family, any interests – in order to guarantee your 15 minutes in the spotlight? Just how much would you be willing to give up to be a star? Your morality? Your dignity? Your soul? These are the questions that get asked in Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014), a Faustian tale of one young starlet’s search for fame and the hideous price that she pays to finally see her name on the big marquee. The answers won’t surprise horror fans but they might give budding ingenues pause for thought as they continue their own quests for immortality and fame. Spoiler alert: these things never go as planned.

Our wannabe starlet is Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe), a bright-eyed, hopeful and rather naive young actress who spends her days wearing hot-pants at Big Tators (think a sleazier version of Hooters) and her evenings going to one audition after the other, all in pursuit of that fabled “big break.” Her manager, Carl (Pat Healey), is a chauvinistic jerk, her “friends” are a bunch of catty, privileged and unbelievably shallow assholes (all of whom are, likewise, hunting for fame and fortune) and the limelight seems impossibly far away. All of this seems to change, however, when Sarah receives a call to audition for mysterious production company Astraeus Pictures’ newest film, The Silver Scream. Could this finally be the break that she’s so desperately looking for?

After a terrible audition, Sarah heads right to the bathroom and promptly throws the kind of fit usually reserved for young children or mental patients: screaming, sobbing, tearing huge chunks of hair out of her head and throwing herself about, Sarah is interrupted by one of Astraeus’ casting agents. Perhaps they’ve missed something “special” after all: Sarah is invited back, with one caveat – she has to throw the same fit for the casting agents. She does and is rewarded with yet another call-back. As Sarah continues to meet with the representatives from Astraeus Pictures, the auditions get stranger and stranger, culminating in a meeting with The Producer (Louis Dezseran) where all of the cards are laid on the table: the coveted lead role is Sarah’s…provided she takes her spot on the casting couch, that is.

Mortified by the “offer,” Sarah rushes out and resigns herself to becoming a star “the right way.” Her roommate, Tracy (Amanda Fuller), seconds Sarah’s outrage: none of them would ever sink that low, so there’s no reason Sarah should, either. After realizing that she’ll never break into their tight-knit clique, however, Sarah begins to reevaluate the offer from Astraeus: she calls them back and is offered one more chance to “meet” with The Producer. As Sarah will find out, however, everything has a price and she will have to trade in one small thing in her pursuit for fame: her basic humanity.

Expertly crafted, Starry Eyes is the kind of well-made, full-throttle B-movie that used to choke video store shelves in the ’80s horror boom: the kicker, of course, is that the film is from 2014, not 1983, making it yet another in the boom of modern genre films that explicitly reference other eras. Despite being part of a larger stylistic trend, however, Starry Eyes holds its own: in many ways, it’s much closer to Ti West’s excellent The House of the Devil (2009) in that the film always “feels” like a period piece, without seeming like slavish imitation. Chalk it up to a mix of Adam Bricker’s cinematography, the film’s themes or its structure but Starry Eyes is one of the most authentic “non-authentic” genre films I’ve seen in some time.

At its heart, however, Kolsch and Widmyer’s film isn’t much more than another variation on the age-old Faust story, albeit one that manages to throw elements of Cronenberg’s gooey The Fly (1986) and the batshit Jeff Lieberman oddity Blue Sunshine (1978) into the mix. Despite a suitably unpredictable (and ridiculously gory) climax, Starry Eyes hits each and every expected beat for this type of story: someone makes a Faustian deal to acquire fame/fortune/power/knowledge, comes to regret their decision after the real “cost” is revealed. As far as the film goes, that’s pretty much it: the “Hollywood starlet/casting couch” aspect doesn’t mix things up much, although everything is wrapped-up in a suitably cohesive way by the conclusion.

If co-writers/directors Kolsch and Widmyer don’t do much new or unique with the formula, however, they also don’t make any obvious missteps. The film looks and sounds great, for one thing, and the frequent digressions into more visual stylistic tics are highly effective: there’s a really well-done drug-trip scene and the finale is wonderfully creepy and atmospheric, sort of a split between the aforementioned Blue Sunshine and one of Val Lewton’s classics. The filmmaking duo has style to spare and there’s a sense of economy to the film that quite nice: it feels like its own small, self-contained world, which is a nice change of pace in this day and age of “everything’s connected.” The acting is decent enough, with veteran character actor Healey bringing a little nuance to his performance as Carl (he could have just been a complete scuzzball but you actually end up feeling for him, a little) and Essoe doing good (if occasionally one-note) work as the aspiring starlet. I found myself actively hating all of Sarah’s friends, however, which probably had as much to do with the script establishing them as worthless twits as it did with the actual performances. That being said, it was impossible for me to get invested in any of their fates, which robbed the finale of some of its awful power: suffice to say, my mourning period was non-existent.

From a horror standpoint, Starry Eyes is exceptionally solid: despite the story’s inherent familiarity, there’s a reason why Faust has always played so well on the big screen and Kolsch and Widmyer manage to wring every last drop of dread and inevitability out of the scenario. The practical effects are actually quite exceptional, with some truly ghastly body horror stuff in the final reel and the single most intense head-smashing scene I’ve ever seen, including the infamous fire extinguisher scene from Irreversible (2002). I’m not normally one to dwell on gore in films (by this point in my life, you could say that I’m a little jaded) but that head-pounding setpiece really is a showstopper, in every sense of the word, and proof positive that the filmmakers have no problem going to some very extreme places.

All in all, I really liked Starry Eyes, even though there wasn’t anything particularly special about it. In certain ways, it reminded me of another retro-minded film, Almost Human (2013): while, likewise, well-made and massively entertaining, it was really nothing more than an enjoyable, direct-to-video B-movie. Perhaps my affinity for and slight (very slight) disregard of Starry Eyes come from the same place: I grew up on movies just like these, good but not amazing horror and genre films that were massively entertaining but largely disposable. If anything, I wish that there were a lot more films like this: I certainly wouldn’t object to a glut of well-made, effective genre films, even if none of them are mind-blowing or game-changing. Without a doubt, Starry Eyes is effective and extremely atmospheric: it compares favorably with the best horror films of the year on quality alone, even if it never takes that “big step” that would vault it above the competition. I liked it enough to anticipate Kolsch and Widmyer’s next project: if they keep mining this same vein of retro-minded horror, I have a feeling that they’ll come up with a real firecracker next time.

 

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