You know things aren’t going to turn out well when the opening scene in a horror movie shows a beautiful but underweight young woman looking in the mirror and grabbing her stomach as if she needs to go on a diet. This self loathing manifests itself even more immediately after when she pulls out clumps of hair in a fit of hatred. This isn’t going to be fun. It is, however, going to be good.
Sarah Walker is one of a million actresses desperately playing the Hollywood game: going to relentless auditions, workshops and classes, hanging out with a bunch of other wannabes and dreaming of becoming a star. Hollywood is presented in greys and washed out blues, there are no bright lights in Sarah’s life. The most colourful thing in her humdrum existence are the gold spandex leggings she wears at her job as a waitress at Big Taters (which seems to sell tits and potatoes): a place where she’s constantly told to give up her dreams and concentrate on selling fries to overweight sleazy businessmen. Now that’s the dream!
Then Sarah answers an ad looking for actors in a new film called The Silver Scream with a minor studio and things change. Whilst waiting outside the audition, the previous girl comes out in floods of tears so you know this are not going to be easy. Actually, Sarah does a great audition, its like a miniature version of the scene from Mulholland Drive with Naomi Watts. However the casting directors seem indifferent to Sarah’s efforts so she too comes out in floods of tears. Hiding in the toilet she has one of her fits, pulling out her hair in anger and frustration. However, the director oversees this and this peeks her interest. Before she knows it Sarah is called back for another audition and… Okay that’s your lot.
That’s quite a detailed description of the first few minutes but that’s about as far as I can go. Let’s just say Sarah goes a lot further. This is one of those great little independent movies the genre is spitting out quite frequently now that really should be seen blind. Not actually blind, that would be crazy. For one thing you wouldn’t be able to see what was going on. Just watch it without knowing too much.
Starry Eyes is a great modern movie, it just right for these times. From a technical point of view things have seemed to have moved on from flashy over cutting and the dreaded shaky cam. Here we are presented with a solid and creepy mystery told very well through strong visual imagery. There is some lovely camera work, especially capturing a haunting other worldly Hollywood, as if it is a city lost in an eerie mist, but also some slightly off centre compositions that make you want to see more than you actually can: Sarah meets a studio exec and the camera sits above and behind his head so you can’t see his face for a long time. You’re desperate to know what his reaction to her is but directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer aren’t giving it to you. It reminds me a lot of Polanksi’s framing in stuff like Rosemary’s Baby, whilst at the same time never losing track of what you the audience need to see and when you need to see it. Its like John Carpenter in that respect.
What’s also like Carpenter is the very electronic synth soundtrack which is really in fashion at the moment (The Guest, It Follows, etc) but I suspect will be hated by everyone in ten years time. Personally I love it, it creates a creeping sense of dread and horror as Sarah’s life gradually, well, falls apart isn’t quite the right term. Mind you, if filmmakers are going to homage anyone it might as well be Carpenter at the height of his powers. If they start trying to imitate him during his Ghosts of Mars period then we’re all in trouble.
The acting is uniformly excellent with Sarah’s mates being a believable bunch of Hollywood hopefuls/self obsessed losers. Even Fabianne Therese who is the standard “bitch” of the group, constantly sniping and undermining Sarah, gives dimension to her character. Front and centre however is Alex Essoe as Sarah who is in every scene of the film and, like Naomi Watts before her, knocks it out the park, as they say in parks. Sarah is obvoiusly a vulnerable and fragile creature, however she is also grimly determined and ambitious. These characteristics are so contrary that it is quite something to wrap them all up into one performance. Throw in fits, abuse, vomiting, violence, mutilation and some weird shit involving her fanny and basically Essoe is totally put through the ringer. And she is fantastic in it. Funny, a film about a girl desperate to become a star seems to have created a star. Or maybe not. As good as Starry Eyes is its not going to be a blockbuster so many people won’t see how good Essoe is. Mind you I didn’t think It Follows would be a hit and look at that. And that has an old man’s last-chicken-in-the-shop dick in it.
Talking of It Follows, it seems that we are going through a period of unusual intelligence in horror cinema (well in the independent sector at any rate, no one could call Ouija or Annabelle intelligent). No matter what you thought of that STD monster movie you can’t deny that there was some smart people making it, dealing with themes such as lost innocence and suburban boredom. Starry Eyes, with its study of the original sin of ambition and the price you pay for celebrity, also demands some serious conversation over a few pints afterwards. I imagine it must particularly unnerve anyone in Los Angeles trying to make it out there.
I just hope enough people can see it so they can all get together for a chat. A chat, a large stiff drink, some good arguments but maybe no hair pulling.