There’s a neat magic trick that “Starry Eyes” pulls off. In telling the story of an unknown actress going to great lengths for the lead role in a horror film, it allows a relatively unknown actress to deliver an amazing performance in a horror film.
That it’s able to pull this off without becoming self-referential and overly “meta” is a testament to the directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. They build a seedy, claustrophobic world that allows Alex Essoe to deliver an incredibly focused and committed performance.
Essoe plays Sarah Walker, an aspiring actress who works at Big Tater’s: a Hooter’s-esque restaurant run by Pat Healy, and surrounds herself with hipster frenemies while hustling auditions. She’s obsessed with becoming a star. Not just any kind of star, either. She idolizes old Hollywood leading ladies. Her timid demeanor masks some serious psychological issues: when she’s upset, she goes into fugue states and pulls her hair out in clumps.
Her big break seems within reach when she lands an audition for Astraeus Pictures (also the real-life title of the film’s production company), which is depicted as the decaying remnant of an old Hollywood studio. The audition does not go well, and she has an episode in the studio’s bathroom. The Casting Director sees this and is intrigued. She arranges another audition, where Sarah has one of her fits in front of the camera.
The rest of the film is the study of how far Walker is willing to go to achieve success with Astraeus. Her ambition is the driving force behind the story and pushes her into a Faustian bargain with the Producer of Astraeus.
What’s fantastic is that the film works completely as metaphor for the process and business of acting while still telling a fantastic story. It references great old Hollywood studio pictures such as “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard” without quoting from them. We’re never told exactly who or what the forces behind Astraeus are. We simply see the wonderfully creepy and not quite human performances of Maria Olsen as the Casting Director and Louis Dezseran as the Producer
When Sarah makes her deal with Astraeus, the movie takes a swing into full blown body horror. There’s some great disgusting makeup and gore in the second half of the movie. The climax of the film is delightfully ambiguous, leaving you to decide if Sarah’s sacrifices and choices were worth it in the end.
Alex Essoe is the movie’s greatest special effect. This movie is a showcase for her performance, as she’s in nearly every frame of the film. She delivers a performance that is honestly one of the best I’ve seen this year. Her scenes with Pat Healy are just spectacular: heartfelt and completely real. I haven’t seen a woman disappear into a role this completely in a horror film since Tristan Risk’s Beatress in “American Mary.”
“Starry Eyes” isn’t just a great horror movie; it’s a great Los Angeles movie. It uses a number of great locations around the city, and depicts the squalor and trashiness of modern Hollywood, contrasting the glamour and perfection of the movie version of Hollywood. The lush cinematography by Adam Bricker excels in showing a beautiful environment and then zeroing in on the chaos and decay that lurk at the edges. This is Hollywood by way of Lovecraft and Ligotti.
“Starry Eyes“ is currently available on VOD from iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. I was lucky enough to see it in its only Los Angeles screening at Cinefamily. If you’re in the mood for a horror movie in the vein of “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Possession,” you’ll really enjoy this movie. There’s so much creativity in every frame of this film. Seek this one out wherever you can find it.