“There must be thousands of girls like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”
Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe), the starry-eyed and bushy-tailed heroine of the 2014 body horror pic Starry Eyes would give ol’ Marilyn a run for her money. Her days are spent serving tater tots to middle-age sleazepiles. And nights? Squabbling with hopeful starlets and answering seedy casting calls. When Astraeus Pictures demands she perform a series of morally yucky behaviors in exchange for a role in their new fright flick, she reluctantly agrees. Her actions cause a change in her, both literally and figuratively.
For anyone who has ever aspired to do great things in their life, Starry Eyes will produce the sensation of butterflies in the belly and a whole lotta goose pimples on the flesh.
Our first meeting with Sarah is captured in close up, her cherry lips and ivory skin veiled by harsh light and sterile hues. The camera lingers on her as she examines her body for imperfections in the mirror, the soft curves of her figure lined by an unappealing bra and underwear. We should be aroused but are instead overcome by sorrow at the sight of the disenchanted actress too despondent to recognize her own beauty.
Moments later she’s at work, her thoughts and feelings buried alongside her round bottom and tight belly in a pair of leopard-skin yoga pants. The camera places us in the shoes (and behind the icky moustache) of her boss, forcing us to stare at length at her backside as she saunters across the room. Not two minutes into the movie and we’ve already seen Sarah in multiple states of undress. We know little about her other than she is sexy. There is a hurricane of emotions hollering within her, they just scream a little quieter than her gaudy stretch pants.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Wedmyer express the disheartening world of young actors by positioning Sarah against a backdrop of black during her first audition. She exposes her soul to a potential producer who responds with a blank face. Darkness pulls in around her like a blanket of despair threatening to smother her emotions. She escapes to the bathroom; wraps her fingers into the tufts of her hair and yanks them from her scalp. Her anxiety floats to the floor on strands of amber and cinnamon. Essoe squeezes every bit of angst out of her first leading role, her real-life jitters shining through every gesture of her body and every twitch of her face.
Teens today spell with the efficiency of children, yet revel in every blurb posted to their social media accounts. They have visions of breaking LeBron James’s scoring records despite having never been part of an organized team and see themselves bracing the covers of fashion magazines because they snap a good selfie. Sarah is not given to such pretense. She knows the pain of defeat and understands that dreams are not given by divine hand but obtained through hard work. While her housemates spend their days sipping amber liquid through freshly glossed lips poolside, she keeps her fun side locked away in a dark cell
At one point Sarah joins her friends by the pool. They leap in unison and are swallowed up by the cold water. Sarah hesitates, unsure she should take part. She stares at the water as if it could wash away her inner turmoil before allowing herself to slide in. Water envelops her. She smiles as it swirls around her, momentarily enjoying her weightlessness. She surfaces. The smile drips off her face. The words of a recent casting director echo through her mind: “This world is about the doers. The people who don’t just talk about what they’re going to do, they just do it.”
Kolsch and Wedmyer grant sympathy to their struggling heroine who is driven by ambition. Initially she resists the urge to bend her morals to suit her new employers but eventually succumbs to the temptation of stardom. She tells herself it’s for the good of her career, that the sting of regret will be eclipsed by the gratification of success. But there is a darkness in Sarah, an evil masked by her sweet and innocent face like a serpent hidden by the brush. This is made forcefully clear during an audition sequence in which Sarah is made to disrobe in a room lit by a stroboscopic lamp. With each flash of the light, her face alternates from utter terror to sheer euphoria. Like an actor stepping into the role of a character, Sarah is transforming into another version of herself.
Though not the first film to examine the physical and emotional wrongdoings of the Hollywood, Starry Eyes seems tied directly to current efforts to expose sexual harassment in the motion picture industry.
Sarah is stuffed into a bloodstained membrane by Astraeus and later emerges as a perfect, blotch-less, hairless specimen. She murders her roommate in grotesque fashion before returning to the mirror where we first found her. She takes in her reflection with a renewed sense of confidence .
Sarah’s world is bathed in grey and photographed with a claustrophobic eye. It is not the lush and colorful California we have come to know, but a cold and grimy place where evil can flourish without detection. Its slow-moving design and Carpenter-inspired synth score work to create dread and alarm and adds power to its gore-drenched final act. It sort of has its cake and eats it too, exhibiting a modest visual economy for the bulk of its running time before exploding with gross-your-eyes-out gore.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Starry Eyes, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, premiered at the South By Southwest film festival in early spring 2014 but was released to the public five years ago to the month. The film received accolades from horror journalists as well as took home a number of prizes from horror-themed award ceremonies. Its success provided Kolsch and Wedmyer the opportunity to direct the Pet Semetary remake for Paramount Pictures. Starry Eyes is streaming on Amazon as well as is available on an extras-packed blu ray from Dark Sky Films.