Starry Eyes + Rotten Soul = Awesome Movie

starry3I’ve made no secret of my love for genre films on this blog. To me, there is no greater excitement in finding a genre film that seamlessly merges the archetypes and hallmarks of its type with more grounded, character-based concerns that could just as easily have been accomplished as a straight comedy or drama. Starry Eyes is just such a film, one that could’ve just been a straight drama about chasing stardom but then excitingly veers into Cronenberg-meets-Carpenter horror chills to create a distinctive and engaging narrative experience. Aided greatly by a stunning performance from Alex Essoe, writer/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have crafted a great piece of genre film that also taps effectively (if predictably) into the angst and anger of aspiring actors everywhere.

The first half of Starry Eyes mostly plays as a standard drama about an aspiring starlet, dealing with a demeaning job and frustrating friends. With lesser mashup films, the pedestrian setup moments are the most boring and uninteresting, there purely out of necessity, but Kolsch and Widmyer handle this half of the movie very well, drawing you into the world of Sarah and making you empathize with her yearning. Each of the characters in Sarah’s regular life are given just enough definition to make them stand apart from each other, and to give each of them a different role to play in Sarah’s life: the deadbeat, vaguely pervy boss; the sympathetic but put-upon roommate; the bitchy frenemy; the optimistic wannabe director. The downbeat, lackadaisical nature of this part of the story should resonate with any aspiring creative who’s been stuck at a dead-end service job while hoping for the big break. Between the naturalistic performances and the carefully-calibrated relationship dynamics, this segment of the film works well even without the slowly-escalating weirdness.

Of course, this is a horror film in the end, and the weirdness is what makes the film really pop. During the first half, the weirdness is kept to a minimum, limited to the off-putting personas of the casting agents, the unsettling dream sequences, etc. Much of it is something that could be dismissed or ignored, or even just seen as stylistic flourishes in the grounded story being told. Once we get to the midpoint, where Sarah debases herself in order to get her part, things really take off, again due to a great balance between Essoe’s impressive performance and Kolsch & Widmyer’s well-crafted story. Furthermore Kolsch & Widmyer avoid pigeonholing themselves into just one type of horror story, thankfully. While much of Sarah’s ordeal falls into body horror, there’s also a stretch where her actions perfectly shift into the beats and rhythms of a slasher film, which helps to increase the momentum as we approach the climax.

The really impressive/exciting aspect of this latter half of the story is how all of the horror elements completely externalize Sarah’s character arc, which combined with the early flashes of weirdness helps the film seamlessly transition from one genre to another. The story is, at the end of the day, about what sacrifices we’re willing to make to become a star, and how the appeal of instant success will drive you to darker decisions than you really need to make. In the first half of the film, this is illustrated by Sarah quitting her job just on the basis of a callback, and turning down the chance to make an indie film with her friends in favor of a fairytale shot at the big time. In the second half of the film, this is illustrated by a series of murders and by the gradual breaking-down of Sarah’s body as she becomes more consumed by her fight for stardom. As all of the events of the film are tied to the same thematic throughline, it all feels more comfortably part of the same story.

A few weeks ago, I lamented how films that largely depend on iTunes to find an audience usually get little-to-no recognition or support, and that many great little gems end up going unnoticed. Starry Eyes is certainly that kind of movie that deserves a much bigger audience than it will probably get, so this is me trying to do my part to get some extra eyeballs on it. But aside from my politicizing of the iTunes release format, Starry Eyes is just a flat-out great film, one that takes its straightforward elements and themes and merges them all together to create something propulsive and engaging. Between the assured storytelling of Kolsch & Widmyer and the intense performance of Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes is the sort of genre film that makes me love genre films, and that we can always use more of.

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