Saturday, March 09, 2019

Starfish: The Apocalyptic Mixtapes

Soundwaves are a strange phenomenon. Even when they are pitched beyond our auditory range as humans, we are still affected by them. That is why the fuller spectrum of sound from vinyl records sounds so much better than CDs. It is also how we subliminally picked up on the news Paul McCartney died in 1966. More ominously, something embedded in a series of mixtapes might have triggered something apocalyptic in A.T. White’s moody and mysterious Starfish, which screens in Brooklyn next week, as part of its roadshow.

Aubrey Parker has come home for the funeral of her best friend, Grace, whose death is a source of tremendous guilt for her. Frankly, she harbors many, many regrets. To wallow in her misery, Parker breaks into Grace’s apartment, but her descent into depression is interrupted by something absolutely monstrous, in a genre kind of way.

It would be spoilery to get too specific about what happens in Starfish, even if we could explain it with confidence. The truth is, White deliberately maintains a great deal of uncertainty, which can be annoying, but works surprisingly well in this case. Regardless, it seems there is some kind of signal occurring, most likely originating from a source beyond our comprehension. However, that signal has been recorded and played back in a corrupted form, which has caused the current hideous state of things. Or so Grace hypothesized.

She was well versed in whatever theories regarding the signal. Apparently, she stashed recordings of it in seven locations that held tremendous personal significance for her and Parker. Collecting and compiling those mixtapes could be the key to everything, but the process will repeatedly send Parker down rabbit-holes of her memory and subconscious.

There have been a number of previous films that used uncanny signals as their Macguffins (several of them have been called The Signal, or a close derivation thereof), but White’s use of mixtapes gives Starfish (a rather misleading title) a distinctively low-fi analog vibe. He also adheres to the mixtape aesthetic stylistically, incorporating a wildly cool animated sequence and a sure-to-be-divisive self-referential scene that either makes or breaks the film for viewers who can make up their mind on it.

Yet, somehow, White keeps us disoriented, but completely locked in every step of the way. His command of mood and texture, as well as Alberto BaƱares’ hazy, otherworldly cinematography are the real stars of the film, but Virginia Gardner deserves credit for hanging tough with them. As Parker, she convincingly alternates between states of general freaked-out-ness and grim resolution. Although Christina Masterson only appears briefly as Grace, her presence is also felt acutely throughout the film.

So much of Starfish involves intangibles, so it easily could have fallen flat, but White and his cast and crew pull it off. It is unusually melancholy for a film that straddles the science fiction and horror categories, but that is why it stands out, even for those of us who consume genre films and programming in bulk. Highly recommended for cult film fans, Starfish screens Wednesday (3/13), Friday (3/15) and Saturday (3/16) at the Nitehawk in Brooklyn and Friday (3/15) at the Yonkers Drafthouse.