FrightFest 2014 Review: STARRY EYES

The opening shots of Starry Eyes convey the film’s arresting themes with an eloquent simplicity. Even before the plot takes a detour into the demonic, protagonist Sarah (Alex Essoe) is already feeling the stress. The reason? The struggle to conform to Tinseltown’s vision of beauty, femininity and glamour. She stands before a bedroom mirror inspecting her hips and clutching at the few bits of loose flesh on a skinny stomach. That she’s as thin as a rake, to the point of being gaunt, highlights the incredible amount of pressure actresses are put under in the world of show business. But for Sarah, it goes further. Working in a cheesy restaurant with ogling colleagues and patrons, she’s made to wear a skin-tight uniform. It’s yet another daily trial under the male gaze. 

After humiliating herself on command at an audition for a low-budget horror film, the wannabe actress is plucked for stardom by a sleazy producer (Louis Dezseran). He sells her the golden dream. However, Sarah hasn’t been chosen for her acting chops. She reeks of desperation and a willingness to do whatever it takes. The producer talks up the movie – titled 'The Silver Scream' – as all about ‘the ugliness of the human spirit’. 

In countless film noirs and industry satires, the dream factory is depicted as a nest of depravity and weirdness. Near enough every Hollywood cliché is present and dissected: the legend of the casting couch; the nerve-shredding audition process; the silver-tongued spiel of the exec who can make or break your career at the click of the fingers; the bitchy rivalry with friends and acquaintances, and twentysomethings milling around getting high while talking up their indie production to anybody that will listen. 

Written and directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes is a classic Faustian drama with a brutal twist. Co-starring Pat Healy, Marc Senter and Amanda Fuller, the movie is dominated, and rightly so, by newcomer Essoe. In a curious way, the role feels like an updating of Isabelle Adjani’s infamously bonkers turn in 1981’s Possession. Essoe puts in an equally bravura performance, capturing distinct layers of desperation, unease and despair.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Bricker, the clash between expressionist and impressionist imagery matches, pictorially, the thematic battle found running rampant in the depths of the film's subtext. Photographically, the two art forms mingle and hybridise with a febrile remit. After an hour or so of carefully staged creepiness - including excellent use of subliminal shots - Starry Eyes cranks it up a gear or two, entering the realms of gore deluxe. The switch in tone is needed because Sarah must demonstrate her willingness to adapt to the new scheme of things. She has abandoned her old life and proved it with an act of sickening violence. 

Starry Eyes is a finely crafted horror movie and study of one woman's quest to obtain stardom at any cost or opportunity. Here, becoming a movie star is depicted as a literal transformative and transcending process.