Thursday, 29 January 2015


What price fame and greatness?

Apparently if you're an aspiring jazz drummer in New York city you pay for it by getting screamed at and humiliated by J.K. Simmons. If you're an aspiring actor in Hollywood however, it would seem that you pay for it with your very soul...

Having moved to L.A. to pursue her dream of becoming a movie star, Sarah is just one of countless thousands of young hopefuls struggling to make it in La La Land. She shares a small flat with her friend Tracy, works a shitty job in a sleazy burger joint and socialises awkwardly within a circle of like-minded Hollywood wannabees who are anything but supportive of her. She also attends an endless string of failed auditions, brutally punishing herself after each failure by painfully ripping handfuls of hair out of her head.

After one such audition at Astraeus Pictures (for a film called The Silver Scream) ends in particularly bitter disappointment, her fit of rage and self-harm in the studio's bathroom is witnessed by the casting director.  Much to Sarah's amazement, she's asked back into the audition room to see if she can recreate that wrenching emotional pain for the Astraeus executive and her assistant. It would appear that in searching for a leading lady for their new horror movie, Astraeus is looking for something more than mere acting ability. Sarah's drive to succeed in the audition pushes her to completely open up for them, exposing her innermost anguish and giving them that extra something that they're looking for. But just how far is she willing to go to please the weird execs from this mysterious studio, and what is the meaning of that odd, occult looking pendant that they wear?

Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's Starry Eyes, featuring a powerful breakout performance from Alexandra Essoe (as well as some excellent supporting performances from Marc Senter, Pat Healy and Louis Dezseran), is an allegorical horror fable with style to spare and rivers of blood and maggots for the gorehounds (like me). It blends two well-trodden cinematic cliches to great effect: the eerie, decaying grandeur and forgotten dreams of Golden Age Hollywood combined with the secretive mystery of Satanic cults. 

It's also a movie about cinema, so although comparisons can be lazy, I think it's appropriate to look at this one in the context of other horror movies that have preceded it.

As with last year's brilliant Whiplash, and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan before that, this is a harrowing exploration of the extent to which some people will endure punishment and sacrifice to achieve their goals.

Due to a number of striking similarities (although they're also different enough to distinguish them), Starry Eyes and Black Swan would actually make for a cool double feature. For one thing, the themes and plots of the two films are almost identical. Of more interest for horror fans however, they both track the mental and physical disintegration of their respective protagonists by forcing the viewer to see them go through some truly wince-inducing moments of body horror (Starry Eyes takes its well executed gore effects to some pretty graphic, nasty places).

It also has to be said that Starry Eyes owes a debt to the films of David Lynch, Mulholland Drive in particular. The Astraeus Pictures producer and his creepy staff could be ripped straight from the pages of a Lynch script - all melodrama, slimy menace and exaggerated weirdness.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Starry Eyes though, is that you're watching a film about a young actress going through unspeakable horrors... while actually watching a real young actress give her all in what must have been a physically and emotionally trying role. It makes for a thought provoking comment on the punishment (and sometimes flat out mistreatment) that's been inflicted on generations of horror actresses.

Marilyn Burns famously had a torturous experience during the filming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but she isn't the only scream queen to have suffered at the hands of a slightly over-zealous director. Shelley Duvall was treated horribly by a sadistic Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining, when he repeatedly yelled at her and forced her to do endless takes until she finally broke down. I'm sure these aren't the only examples.

There can be little doubt that throughout the history of modern horror cinema women have had it tough, both in terms of their character's demises and the demanding nature of their roles. You need look no further than movies like Mermaid in a Manhole, Thanatomorphose and Hostel Part II to see where I'm coming from. 

The question posed by Starry Eyes is "is it worth it"? I think that most horror fans, myself included, would agree that going that extra mile to shock, repulse and terrify us is what it's all about.

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