Starry Eyes Review [SXSW 2014]

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On March 23, 2014
Last modified:March 23, 2014


Starry Eyes balances Hollywood satire and splattery gore in a way that's both fresh and inviting, taking a typical struggling actress and exploiting her story with everything the horror genre has to offer.

Starry Eyes Review [SXSW 2014]

Starry Eyes isn’t just a sleek slow-burn thriller with a dynamite third act, but it’s a punchy satirical look at the corrupt, disgusting world of struggling actresses and the major studios who take advantage of their desperate nature. We all dream of lavish celebrity lifestyles and worldwide fame, but at what price are we willing to pay? Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer tweak a dramatic, tragic scenario to create a provocative genre watch that utilizes the disgusting, terrifying nature of horror for exploitative purposes – but it works when exploring such seedy material. Horror movies with a backhanded message are always the most fun, because gracefully transforming reality into horror takes so much more finesse than whipping up yet another hack n’ slash splatterfest – which we still get a gleeful amount of.

Sarah (Alex Essoe) is a hopeful young actress struggling to make her feature debut. Audition after audition, Sarah hears the same empty words, a kiss of death for hopeful stars – “We’ll be in touch.” Sarah doesn’t deal with rejection like other actresses though, as she hides away and throws herself into a violent fit of bodily harm. Seeing her expression of frustration as something embarrassing, her view changes when a talent scout thinks such raw emotion would be perfect for her production company’s next horror film. Thinking she’s finally getting her big break, Sarah returns for a few auditions, but with each meeting the circumstances become weirder and weirder. Evoking an animalistic response in her, Sarah’s friends start to worry about her new mentality and her perplexing state. Is there more to this production company than meets the eye?

Of course there is – Starry Eyes promotes gory, brutal imagery as Sarah sacrifices everything for fame. We’re not exposed to drenching moments of fear or psychologically twisting perversity until later on in Kolsch and Widmyer’s twisted fairy tale, as we almost wonder when the genre elements are going to kick in. Cameras follow Sarah as she works at a punny spud-themed restaurant managed by character actor Pat Healy, but it’s not until over halfway through the film that we’re exposed to the dark truths of showbiz – and an explosive final number. Once Sarah fully gives in to her professional desires, Starry Eyes makes up for lost time by evoking a John-Carpenter-overdrive mode that crams an hour’s worth of “fun” into one neat, adrenaline filled package.

Starry Eyes Review [SXSW 2014]

Side note, I love movies about making movies. There’s something hilarious about filmmakers lampooning the very industry they work in, and calling upon themes of satanic worshiping hits so many echoing chords. Think of the greedy, soulless studio heads that already run the industry (if you’re to believe certain whistle-blowers) – but now allow your imagination to run wild, inviting the true demons to come crawling out of Hollywood. Sarah deals with pain obsessed casting agents, a wicked producer with his own agenda, and a studio content with consuming the souls of young celebrity wannabes. Yes, this is a movie about selling your soul for a star on Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame, but it’s a clever and unnerving take at that. Not exactly an original invention, because The Devil has claimed many souls throughout history, but Starry Eyes ultimately gains respect thanks to a raw, no-holds-barred finish.

A brutal blend of innocence and insanity, it’s our shining star Alex Essoe who subjects herself to a bevy of practical effects too gruesome for weaker stomachs. I can’t explain it, but a proper bodily horror film really seeps under my skin (pun intended), as rotting flesh and festering wounds transform a beautiful human being into a ghastly, zombie-like creature (see Contracted). Starry Eyes sports such a metamorphosis, as Sarah must be broken before being reborn as a Satanic star, but before Essoe enters her blossoming cocoon, we’re given plenty of instances where Sarah pays for her decision. Case in point – fingernails. Nothing irks me more than watching them be torn off. It takes serious effects work to churn my stomach, so kudos to Starry Eyes for almost sending me to the toilet! I promise that’s a compliment.

I’m not one for political satire and strong dramatics, but horror-inspired satire opens so many more unfathomable windows. Kolsch and Widmyer are able to make statements about being a celebutante, bash Hooters-like restaurant chains, promote self-respect, comment on selling out for fame, and show how desperate people blindly trust those who have no interest in their true well-being. Scoring such salacious entertainment to Jonathan Snipes’ synthy 80s-pop soundtrack only makes the material that much more scandalous, as perfectly atmospheric music invites viewers to enjoy Sarah’s deconstruction in ways that shouldn’t be attainable – a soundtrack worth owning for musical merits. Snipes strikes a very new-wave Walter Hill-type personality for Starry Eyes, aided by nostalgic, old-school ambition – the film’s crowing achievement in my eyes.

Starry Eyes presents a fresh take on a recycled Hollywood journey, one that oozes passionate horror love and dramatic, psychologically-charged storytelling. You’ve seen it before, but you haven’t seen it like this – right down to the perfectly plastic-looking cultists who demand Sarah’s mortal soul. Is all the bloodshed, death, and harm worth years in the spotlight? Please, don’t finish that statement – a real answer could be scarier than Starry Eyes itself.

Starry Eyes Review [SXSW 2014]

Starry Eyes balances Hollywood satire and splattery gore in a way that's both fresh and inviting, taking a typical struggling actress and exploiting her story with everything the horror genre has to offer.

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