2014 has spoiled us horror fans. We've already gotten a number of excellent indie horror films, among them Proxy, Stage Fright, Almost Human, Willow Creek, The Guest, WolfCop, Suburban Gothic and a few others. Now into that mix comes Starry Eyes, the second narrative feature from writer/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer; their previous collaboration, Absence, remains unseen by me (though probably not for long). It is an incredibly well-directed film, and on the basis of their work here I will be anxiously waiting to see what they do next. But it's also a movie that tells us where it's going to go and then goes there, conjuring up memories of a number of other horror films along the way. I got hung up on that. I shouldn't have.
Alex Essoe stars as Sarah, a twentysomething would-be actress living in Los Angeles. She supports herself working at a cheesy Hooters-esque restaurant (managed by Pat Healy!) and goes on failed audition after failed audition, mentally and even physically beating herself up each time her efforts come up short. She lives in an apartment complex filled with fellow wannabe actors and directors. Some, like bitchy Erin (Fabianne Therese), are jealous and ultra competitive. Some, like Danny (Noah Segan), are supportive and want to give Sarah work, tired of waiting for someone else to give them the go ahead and looking to make their own movie. One day, she goes in to read for a new horror film called The Silver Scream and, after a particularly humiliating audition, Sarah decides she will do anything to get the part. And that's exactly what happens.
Even a derivative movie can still work, and while I was hung up on the "derivative" part upon first seeing the film, I've since come to realize that Starry Eyes works. It's so skillfully made that it could probably overcome any narrative shortcomings, and even those are probably being overstated.
This is the kind of movie that needs to go to crazy dark places we weren't expecting -- and, to be honest, I suspect the filmmakers believe they have done just that. It would impossible to anticipate just how things are going to play out from the way the movie begins, which is to be commended. My problem is that the film insists on telegraphing everything it's going to do; once you know what's coming (and if you've seen enough horror movies, you know exactly what's coming even if you don't know exactly how it's going to get there) the rest of the movie is just a waiting game.
Yes, Starry Eyes is unbelievably cynical about the price of fame and the nature of celebrity. The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to realize that it's even more cynical about what the culture does to independent filmmakers. I couldn't say for sure, but I suspect the filmmakers have inserted some very specific and pointed commentary about their own experiences in the industry into their screenplay. To say too much would constitute spoiling certain aspects of the movie, so I'll just say that those looking to circumvent the system -- the ones who aren't willing to play ball -- are rarely rewarded for their noble intentions. Starry Eyes doesn't have a ton of faith in the power of the can-do indie spirit.
Then there is Fabianne Therese, who plays a member of Sarah's social circle and a fellow actress whose every moment of screen time is devoted to making passive aggressive remarks meant to undermine Sarah's confidence. That this person definitely exists in Hollywood is beside the point; she spends most of the movie in a completely one-note role, dependably saying the shittiest thing possible at every opportunity. But late in the film she gets a moment of humanity in which she is no longer in competition for a part, only concerned for a friend, and it reshapes everything that has come before. For as on-the-nose as Starry Eyes can sometimes be about the movie business, I'm glad the filmmakers still managed to fill their world out with real people and not just sitcom cutouts.