“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” – Wise words from one of Hollywood’s most tragic victims Marilyn Monroe. It might just be funny, if it wasn’t so bitterly true. It’s no secret that if you want to make it in Tinseltown, really make it big, then you are going to have to make sacrifices. But how far is someone prepared to go to achieve that fame and fortune? Would they degrade themselves, for example? Would they sleep with a producer? Would they make cosmetic changes? Would they step over others? Would they kill? Would they die for their cause? Would they sell their soul to the devil?
These are the questions that directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer ask in Starry Eyes– a part crowd funded film that has been garnering much applause from the genre community since its release in 2014. Kölsch and Widmyer’s vision of the Hollywood casting couch and one girl’s plight to get that big break, isn’t so much the satire it has been tagged but more a mallet to the face when delivering its central message. We join young Sarah (Alex Essoe) who while working in a crappy job as a waitress, knows her life is destined for bigger things. She attends audition after audition, knowing that her moment in the sun is just around the corner. When a script arrives from Astraeus Pictures for a horror film The Silver Scream she thinks this could be just the thing she has been looking for. Astraeus are very interested in Sarah; they see her as someone prepared to take the necessary action to get what she wants, and set about testing the newly discovered-would be- starlet to the extreme. It’s up to her now, she just has to demonstrate how much she wants this, and then all her dreams will be realised- not without cost of course, and it’s down to Sarah to decide if she’s prepared to pay to get what she wants.
Kölsch and Widmyer make no bones about weaving a warped little web of corruption as their wicked tale unravels. The film starts off in A Serbian Film territory, as Sarah moves around meeting producers and putting herself through an audition process, before skipping way beyond that into highly unexpected waters; riffing on that age old idea of the Faustian Pact- albeit with a flavour of body horror Thanatomorphose style mixed with Soavi’s The Sect. It makes for a heady brew, and one that keeps you guessing as things go from bad to worse. What is interesting is, although there are these little essences of other films to be found, Starry Eyes grabs originality through its off-centre unsettling aura and nihilistic edge. It is grim. It’s nasty in its scathing attack on the Hollywood machine. It is a film that adequately reflects the values of the selfie generation- with everyone wanting their fifteen minutes; the craving for fame and fortune and sense of entitlement that follows. Hollow characters populate a grey, soulless canvass, and Sarah, head of it all is the most soulless of them all. This causes confusion, because you are never really sure whether to root for her or those around her that are just as lacking in gumption or likeability. It’s a perplexing position for the viewer, because here is a narrative that deliberately removes those usual pointers which guide the audience into caring. But despite of this, you still do. Part of the ‘magic’,if you can call it that, of the piece is Alex Essoe’s performance in the central role. It’s almost as if she sleepwalks through the part, showing nothing of the hunger or passion that should be the drive behind achieving one’s goals- instead what we have is a feeling of resignation, and being a pawn or victim of a system that moves young people through its ranks before spitting them back out; a feeling of dirty desperation that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. But then in the same blow, what she does is unforgiveable and we see nothing of humanity inside this strange, detached character; so she is neither a true villain nor an object of pity. The makers tell us nothing about Sarah. We meet her as this bizarre journey begins and ends, and therefore we have nothing to attach to other than a bleak prospect, and a message that goes against the grain by subverting the well-trodden moralistic codes often rife in horror.
All this is not delivered without flaw, however. Starry Eyes misses a couple of beats when it comes to pacing, which could have done with a slight tightening up. There are moments when it threatens to grind to a halt. Then there are those crescendos when matters explode in amongst the quiet, and what moments they are- complete with some impressively nasty effects; these make up for the slight over emphasis on the calm before the storm.
To be fair nothing is ever perfect. On balance, for a modern horror Starry Eyes comes out a lot more thought-provoking than many of its peers. It is a feature that generates discussion and uses a subtle clever weaving to reel its audience in. Some might find that the lack of full-on shocks and scares is off putting, but it’s a film that pays off if you are prepared to go the full distance. Brutal at times, weirdly gripping at others, slightly too long for its own good, Starry Eyes is, nevertheless, very worthwhile.