Dir: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Written by: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alex Essoe, Noah Segan, Pat Healy, Amanda Fuller, Shane Coffey, Louis Dezseran
Running Time – 96 mins.
UK Premiere: Frightfest 2014
When struggling actress, Sarah (Essoe), successfully auditioning for the mysterious Astraeus Pictures’ film ‘The Silver Scream’, it seems to be a dream come true. As her body starts to undergo strange changes and she witnesses disturbing visions, Sarah discovers that her fame must come at a terrible price.
The all true tale of the vicious Hollywood system chewing up and spitting out the unfortunate souls yearning for their big break is certainly nothing new. Through Kolsch and Widmyer’s collective twisted imagination, however, Starry Eyes is a terrifyingly grim depiction of the lengths to which people will go to achieve their dreams.
The entire film hinges on the stellar performance from Alex Essoe. Appearing at the centre of almost every scene, she is deftly able to convey an enormous spectrum of various states of emotion. Sarah initially appears to be a typical vulnerable and naive girl with sky high dreams but is constantly beaten down by her minimum wage job and her incredibly bitchy and equally desperate faceless LA friends.
The real hook to her brilliant character development, is the fact that whilst she is able to win over the audience’s sympathy, there are moments where her selfish desire for fame flares up violently, counterbalancing her weak demeanour. Intriguingly, the film sets up the idea that despite all the madness she undergoes, she has always been disturbed and the ‘audition process’ is the final thing to push her over the edge.
This is represented through some intensely physical scenes, in one she re-enacts a horrifyingly convincing fit and is seen throughout the film to be constantly pulling out large chunks of her hair. The film’s immaculate sound design makes every wince-inducing rip become deafening and stomach-bothering. The very literal change the audience see her go through is a fantastic example of a truly twisted fairytale character, as she blossoms from being meek and shy to something entrancing and deadly.
The fact that the film is able to conjure up so much dread and tension with mere suggestion and dark shadows is hugely commendable. Whilst the film transforms to be more physical, it is predominantly a mental horror that insidiously gets inside of the heads of the audience so frighteningly discreetly. There is such a painstaking effort made to create a gradual terrifying escalation of raw horror, so that the ultimate payoff of the gloriously grand finale hits home with a far greater impact. The recurring use of incredibly contained and drawn out corridor shots are fantastically evocative of early Roman Polanski. The sense of impending doom with every echoing step taken adds further to the constant underlying, armrest-ripping tension that grabs the entire film in a suffocating stranglehold.
It is rare when the influence of two directors mixes so well but the very distinct Cronenberg body horror adds another disgustingly delicious element to the film. Having literally sold her soul, Sarah disintegrates onscreen, coughing up maggots as her teeth and nails fall out. It is easy to see that the film’s message concerns the price of fame and the metamorphosis so many actors must endure to be appealing and relevant. In Starry Eyes, it is at the actual cost of Sarah’s humanity as her desire for fame has utterly consumed her.
The film holds absolutely nothing back when it comes to a blunt and horrifying exploration of the exploitation that particularly budding actresses endure in the Hollywood system. Capturing the truly terrifying spirit of auditions, Sarah is forced to strip and abuse herself before a panel of two monstrously cold and unfeeling judges. The sickening process is exasperated by a profoundly skin-crawling performance from Louis Dezseran as the Producer. With a hauntingly false smile, the aging Producer’s sexual advances belie the terrifying plan he has for Sarah, where the film spectacularly descends into madness.
Towards the end of the film, the subtler approach is brutally offset by an incredibly violent scene that features, amongst other items, the novel use of a dumbbell. It would be fair to say that for some, this ruins the film’s more psychological set-up. Conversely, however, this scene, when combined with the body horror can be seen as being so much more effective and shocking because the majority of the film takes the more mental approach.
One of the most important elements of the film is how the city of Los Angeles almost becomes a character itself. Bathed in a constant fuzzy haze, the dense mist that lies heavily over the city permeates into the story itself as everything is superbly shrouded in mystery. The grey and almost apocalyptic aesthetic perfectly depicts the dirty and unpalatable LA that is so often covered up. The film’s dark focus on the notion that beneath the glamour, lays the monster, serves as a perfect allegory for the plot.
Frightfest 2014 was a year notable for its soundtracks and Jonathan Snipes’ eerie composition fits Starry Eyes like a glove. The combination of synthesisers with nursery school chimes produces a truly haunting and chilling effect, like icy nails down the spine. Matching the film’s disquieting ability to get under the audience’s skin, the soundtrack is also a vital part of Starry Eye’s wonderful constant blurring between reality and fiction. Jumping from a calm false sense of security to knife’s edge tension in a heartbeat, it is a piece of genius and its importance to the film’s ability to disturb cannot be understated.
A truly spectacular performance from Essoe, combined with a killer soundtrack and a constant underlying terror made Starry Eyes one of the highlights of the festival. Such a masterful grasp of tension and the creation of genuine fear of the unexpected also sees directors Kolsch and Widmyer as very exciting prospects for the future. Intense, uncomfortable and bloody brilliant.