The setup of “Starry Eyes” isn’t exactly original. A determined young actress yearns for greater recognition of her hidden talents, but her big break turns out to be more than she bargained for. Still, filmmakers Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch revisit the familiar parable of ambition, that “blackest of human desires,” with a stunning new style that infuses this descent into spine-chilling horror with a nightmarish, ethereal atmosphere.
“Starry Eyes” wears its influences on its sleeve. In its satire of the morally bankrupt Tinseltown and its debauched casting process, the film invokes “Mulholland Drive.” At its core, “Starry Eyes” is a darkly comic character study of a woman who seeks success at any cost. The viewer sees Hollywood through the eyes of Sarah Walker, the aspiring star played with genuine vulnerability by Alexandra Essoe. Taking many cues from horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” the terror early on in “Starry Eyes” comes from the protagonist’s inability to differentiate reality from fiction.
A slow build, “Starry Eyes” expertly transitions from resonant social commentary and cultural satire to overwhelming supernatural dread. At the film’s outset, Sarah is already on the brink of collapse. She finds her day job at a Hooters-esque diner demeaning, thanks in no small part to her lascivious boss and the leering customers. Stuck in a pattern of endless rejection, Sarah has taken to violently pulling her hair out after failed auditions as a way to “focus on the moment.”
Surrounded by other Hollywood-adjacent types, Sarah’s biggest acting offer comes from her friend Danny (Noah Segan), a wannabe director living in a broken-down van. That is, until she gets invited to try out for the lead role in a new horror film from once-legendary production company Astraeus Pictures, which just happens to share its name with a demon.
After blowing the audition and having another nervous breakdown, this time secretly witnessed by the comically evil casting director, Sarah is invited to repeat her breakdown as a masochistic performance. Finally confronting her feelings of inadequacy, Sarah ultimately impresses the casting director and opens up a dangerous path to fame.
Unlike many filmmakers who throwback to the ’80s horror style, Widmyer and Kölsch never allow “Starry Eyes” to lapse into full-blown nostalgia pandering. Jonathan Snipes’ synth score is original enough to distance itself from the Tangerine Dream-knockoff quality endemic to many ’80s-inspired soundtracks.
Cinematographer Adam Bricker paints a dreary image of modern Los Angeles that is almost unrecognizable when compared to the city’s previous cinematic renditions. Only Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” comes close to “Starry Eyes” in visually conveying the scuzzy underbelly of the City of Angels.
The Lynchian psychological horror of “Starry Eyes” soon goes full David Cronenberg. The second half features some of the most grotesque, stomach-churning body horror effects in recent memory. It is genuinely disturbing and difficult to watch as Sarah’s feral ambition literally consumes her. With the help of excellent makeup, Essoe feels like a completely different character, further lending to the authenticity of Sarah’s downfall.
Essoe’s singular performance sets “Starry Eyes” apart from recent female-led horror films. For every horrifying decision Sarah makes, Essoe effectively conveys the desperation that led her to it. The role is both physically and emotionally demanding, and Essoe goes to incredible lengths to delve into Sarah’s psyche.
Sarah is more than a one-dimensional “innocent ingenue” stereotype. She thrusts herself forward out of a desire to achieve perfectionism, well aware of the improbability of her dreams. In the scenes she shares with Danny and other realistic, pretentious Hollywood hopefuls, Widmyer and Kölsch succeed in bringing the viewer to empathize with Sarah’s paranoid perspective to the point that she appears trapped by those lacking the ability to commit to their ambitions. In the words of the crusty old producer behind Astraeus Pictures: “Everyone has it, but how many act on it?”
You can’t miss Widmyer and Kölsch’s message. The allegorical content is about as subtle as a dumbbell to the forehead. “Starry Eyes” is a modern fable that shouts its moral through a megaphone. Above all, “Starry Eyes” is what good horror films should be: frightening, dark and shockingly memorable.
“Starry Eyes” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].