Sunday, 5 March 2017

Starry Eyes (2014)


Directors: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Cast: Alex Essoe (as Sarah); Amanda Fuller (as Tracy); Noah Segan (as Danny); Fabianne Therese (as Erin); Shane Coffey (as Poe); Natalie Castillo (as Ashley)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #88

Watching Starry Eyes evoked Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon (2016) greatly, actually to a detriment as, whilst there's things to admire in Starry Eyes, the comparison between them in tackling similar themes - of young women trying to make it big in the cutthroat, male gaze dominated worlds of fashion and Hollywood, electronic neo-synth scores, extreme violence - shows up the problems in Starry Eyes I find constantly in modern American horror films for neglecting the importance of the visual nature of horror and the bandying of tired clichés of drama as a better emotional depth compared to being highly artistic and arch in tone.

A lot of Starry Eyes' drama should already be known to any film fan who at least poked their heads into the culture around Hollywood. That in real life wannabe actors, bright eyed and optimistic, have to work like Sarah (Alex Essoe) does in places like a family restaurant around Los Angeles whilst waiting for auditions, at work in ridiculous gold spandex and away from it with friends like Tracy (Amanda Fuller) who she is disconnected to all of. If I give the film credit, it touches upon something more universal beyond Hollywood in terms of a period many find themselves going through in between low paying jobs, dreams and aspirations of something big in the distance with the sense you're going to go nowhere. It's a credible emotional core that anyone can attach to when the Faustian notion of Hollywood discovering talent takes place, Sarah getting an audition for a horror film with sinister, strangely behaving staff involved, has been done over and over. Unfortunately it's depicted in an entirely muted style of mumbled dialogue and close-ups of small rooms which doesn't work due to the lack of expanding on these emotions further. What should be the main dynamic drive for the whole film isn't eventually interesting, the frustration of Sarah being stuck in her position, coupled with aspects such as trichotillomania, a habit of pulling her own hair out in moments of stress, not fleshed out enough to be more interesting. It sadly also means Essoe really doesn't stand out in the lead in this drama for the first half, the plight lacking the necessary sadness after the initial sympathy petered out for me.

So instead it's the horror clichés that I hoped change the pace to bring life to the film. And when it gets to the finale, Starry Eyes doesn't hold back either. Some may complain of the drastic tonal change into the gruesome and almost hyper violent equivalent of an old horror comic book, when the slow burn young adult drama gets pushed to the side, but it's when Starry Eyes' pulse actually starts to beat finally. Nasty body horror, throwing up maggots, openly embracing the kind of ridiculous seventies films about Satanism that it truly is by way of a bald head, painted fingernails and a pentagram necklace. Stuff that draws the film briefly away from its murky tone to a campiness actually more befitting a lead character out of a Millennials drama from the current decade who yet worships classic actresses like Joan Crawford and Lauren Bacall on her bedroom wall, the kind of actress even in the most realistic performances were as much able to get into pure melodrama and heightened emotions, a glamour that's in dire necessity for a film like this that's stuck in a lo-fi tone for a large part of it for no dramatically good reason.

It's here though, even if arguably The Neon Demon is a more vacuous film, where the gaudier and more artsploitation side trumps Starry Eyes. I've become tired of so many new, potentially fresh voices in horror cinema like the director-writers of Starry Eyes squandering their good ideas for a post digital cinematography that's a faux cinema verité rather than using the look for atmosphere and to add to the sense of dread, or how even for a low budget film like this it doesn't attempt higher ambitions to escalate its sense of emotional horror further. It's only when it gets more ridiculous at the end where it gets some real emotional heft because it doesn't pull its punches and embraces the fantastical nature of the story against realistic characters and locations. Not only is the camp, the bedroom full of black candles, actually more scarier but mixing it in actually helps add to the realism and give it the necessary reality to work, where the late night neon haze of Los Angeles is actually appropriately dreamlike and nightmarish when Sarah's body starts to rebel against herself and break down, and how the rundown environments and apartments take on the Repulsion (1965) like tone finally I wanted the film to get into. It's not enough to save the film but at least Starry Eyes ends with a bang.

As much of this issue with Starry Eyes is knowing how critically acclaimed it was when it was released, only finding that for a film that was praised for its emotional powerful storytelling it's a whory old cliché in the centre of the tale whose lead only really gets interesting as an actress and character in the finale when she's made up in gross practical make-up and drifting to the evil side. That its score by Jonathan Snipes is generic and exhibiting the danger of this neo-synth score becoming tired in modern cult cinema, and that as much as I enjoy the ending Starry Eyes eventually becomes a cycle of almost pornographic gore scenes such as a character's practical effect head being turned into pate with a dumbbell. In comparison something like The Neon Demon is so much more effective as a weird, deliberately provocative movie, whilst saying Starry Eyes is more emotionally resonant is calling the kettle black. It shows promise in its creators but they need to hammer out of themselves the generic tropes of modern American horror filmmaking as soon as possible so really great films could actually come from the pair together or separately.


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