If you’re even a casual horror fan, chances are that by now you’ve found it impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding 2014’s Starry Eyes, a modestly-budgeted independent offering from co-directors/co-screenwriters Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Most folks will tell you that it has “a real old school vibe,” or that it plays out like “a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and Mulholland Drive,” — some have opined that it’s “a slow-burn psychological horror” or that it “reminds them of the best Satanic cult flicks of the ’70s.” The one thing nearly everybody seems to agree on is that it’s flat-out awesome.
Now that it’s available via Netflix instant streaming (you can also find it on Blu-ray and DVD from Dark Sky Films, but not having watched it in either of its physical-storage iterations I can’t fairly comment on their technical specs, extras, etc.) I finally decided to see what all the hype was about for myself and, whaddya know? For once the knee-jerk contrarian in me will just have to sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and admit that everybody is right. This movie is the shit.
The people making the comparisons to Mulholland Drive and Rosemary’s Baby are right on the money, as are the folks saying it reminds them of the better ’70s Satanic cult films (although it’s probably worth pointing out that most of those are watered-down approximations of Polanski’s just-mentioned earlier effort — which is by no means me taking a pot-shot at ’em, I love Satanic cult movies almost as much as I love actual Satanic cults), but I don’t think audiences should necessarily go into Starry Eyes expecting anything that comes close to the depth and complexity of David Lynch’s masterpiece (or one of his masterpieces, at any rate — for my money Fire Walk With Me is right up there, as well). That’s not exactly the point here. Kolsch and Widmeyer are telling a much more straightforward story, with no explorations of the subconscious, fugue-like dream-states, or grand symbolic overtures. This is, in the end, a fairly simple tale of the old “be careful what you wish for” variety that is extremely well-realized in all facets across the board.
So let’s dish out some kudos, shall we? First and foremost to the aforementioned auteurs behind this little slice of horror heaven for crafting a piece of haunting beauty, rich-yet-subtle atmospherics, nearly-unbearable tension, and all-too-human heartbreak. Whether alone or in tandem, the names Kolsch and Widmeyer are ones to be watching from here on out.
Running an incredibly close second in importance, though, is lead performer Alexandra Essoe, whose turn as wannabe-starlet Sarah is a tour de force of physical, psychological, and emotional transformation. Sure, the make-up and SFX technicians do a great job, as well, but she sells you on every step of her journey from waitress at a Hooter-ish hot dog stand with big dreams to instantly-egotistical-bitch who thinks she’s better than all her friends the minute she gets a call-back after an audition to — human gateway for supernatural powers beyond her understanding and comprehension once her new “friends” at Astraeus Pictures get their hooks in her. Yeah, okay, most of her social circle are self-obsessed asshole twenty-somethings, but her drawn-out betrayal of best friend/roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) is actually kinda painful to see play out and adds an easily-relatable dimension to the otherwise-otherwordly proceedings. Impressive work from a talent to be reckoned with.
Shit, I’m almost ready to say that this is a movie that has something for everyone, but I do need to add one very minor caveat — horror fans who appreciate a story that takes its time and actually goes to the effort of involving viewers in its characters, concepts, and settings will be instantly hooked and draw a deeper, gasping breath when things inevitably go way south for our protagonist, no question, but if you’re part of the short-attention-span crowd, you may find the early going a bit of a slog. Stick with it, though — the payoff is big, really big, and even hard-core gorehounds will eventually find enough here to sink their blood-red fangs into, once all the expertly-laid pieces are in place and we find ourselves at the point where the shit hits the fan. I can’t see anyone’s interest completely waning at any point, but if you’re the fidgety type, then glue yourself to your seat if you must, but do not turn away.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, though, that you’re not a horror fan (which leads me to wonder what the hell you’re even doing reading this review, but whatever) — never fear, there’s still plenty in Starry Eyes for you to appreciate, as well, because this is a well-crafted, richly-deserved savaging of the Hollywood rat race from what feels like an authentic, “insider” point of view. From pretentious wannabe-stars to uncaring studio execs to “casting couch” sleaziness to the quiet full-time desperation of those who can’t let go of their dreams at any price, it’s all on display here. The critique ain’t subtle by any stretch, but then neither is the situation for the average kid who heads west with delusions of grandeur that can, in most cases, never come true.I’m pretty sure I said earlier that the heartbreak in this flick is “all too human” (or words to that effect) — trust me, that’s not hyperbole or exaggeration. It’s just fact.
So, yeah, this is one of those rare instances where you can absolutely believe all the hubbub and hoopla. Starry Eyes is at least as good as everyone’s been claiming, and maybe even better. The over-used cliche “game-changer” comes to mind. Kolsch and Widmeyer have set the bar for indie horror very high indeed. I’d be damn surprised if anyone else surpasses it this year.