Friday, November 14, 2014

Starry Eyes: Ready for Her Close-Up?

If only Astraeus Pictures employed the traditional Hollywood casting couch, Sarah Walker would be much better off. Instead, they will play sadistic games with her head and her life in Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Show business is a tough racket. Walker is reasonably talented and attractive, but she just cannot catch a break. It hardly helps when one of her so-called friends steals a gig out from under. Frankly, they are not really her friends, they are her roommate’s friends. Her life is already like the darkside of Melrose Place and it will get steadily darker when she auditions for Astraeus.

Even though the indie studio has been somewhat off their game lately, scoring the lead in their latest horror movie would be a career-making coup. Unfortunately, Walker bombs during the weirdly confrontational audition, but when the casting director happens to witness her massively self-loathing breakdown in the ladies room, complete with hair-pulling and paroxysms, Astraeus is suddenly interested again.

Nonetheless, they will hardly fulfill all her dreams just like that. The callbacks will be truly sinister. Yet, each time Walker draws a line in the sand, she inevitably comes crawling back. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of Starry is her willing complicity in her own damnation (for lack of a better word).

While there are teases of demonic horror in Starry (that the one-sheet duly capitalizes on), its first two thirds are more closely akin to a claustrophobic Polanski psycho-thriller. However, when the gloves come off in the final act, it gets spectacularly gory. Yet, in a way it comes as a relief, finally providing a break from the more realistically grounded and disturbing mental cat-and-mouse game that came before. It might even earn a laugh or two if you have a particularly evil sense of humor.

Starry will not be to everyone’s tastes (boy, is that safe to say), but the way it eviscerates Hollywood fakeness certainly sets it apart from the field. Being an insincere frenemy will get you painfully dead in Starry. As disturbing as Walker’s arc gets, Kölsch & Widmyer’s screenplay is a lot like a vintage E.C. comic—everybody who gets it probably had it coming.

As Walker, Alex Essoe absolutely goes for broke. She has moments that rival Isabel Adjani’s epic freak-out in Żuławski’s Possession. However, she cannot be accused of overly excessive histrionics (like say, Meryl Streep in Osage County, since we’re still not ready to let that one go), because the film’s dramatic context truly demands something viscerally explosive—and Essoe delivers in spades.

Although the who’s-and-what’s of Astraeus remain murky, Louis Dezseran makes a distinctively sleazy patrician villain as the producer and implied studio boss, admirably gnawing on scenery in the old school Hammer tradition. Emerging indie genre star Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills, Compliance, The Innkeepers) also takes a memorable turn Carl, Walker’s boss at a Hooter’s style scarf-and-barf, who might be what passes for a likable character in Starry.

When Starry finally lowers the curtain, you are likely to hear loud exhaling throughout the theater. It is a darkly intense film, but also unusually well executed by genre standards. Arguably, there is even an element of Bergman-esque angst buried amid the body horror and bloody carnage. Recommended for adventurous cult cinema fans, Starry Eyes opens today (11/14) in New York at the Village East.