The best horror movie of 2014 comes to Blu-ray. Now there’s no excuse for not seeing it.
The 2014 horror movie Starry Eyes crept up on me. I liked it when I saw it months ago, but as the days and weeks went by the movie wouldn’t leave my head. Scenes and images stuck with me. Jonathan Snipes’ brilliant score replayed in my mind over and over as every moment of star Alex Essoe’s performance haunted me. Within a few weeks, I finally realized that I didn’t just like Starry Eyes; I loved it. This is my favorite horror movie of the last year.
Newcomer Essoe is Sarah, a twentysomething would-be actress living in Los Angeles. She supports herself working at a cheesy Hooters-esque restaurant (managed by Pat Healy of The Innkeepers) and goes on failed audition after failed audition, mentally and even physically beating herself up each time her efforts come up short. She lives in an apartment complex filled with fellow wannabe actors and directors. Some, like Erin (Fabianne Therese, John Dies at the End), are jealous and ultra competitive. Some, like Danny (Noah Segan, Looper), are supportive and want to give Sarah work, tired of waiting for someone else to give them the go ahead and looking to make their own movie. One day, she goes in to read for a new horror film called The Silver Scream and, after a particularly humiliating audition, Sarah decides she will do anything to get the part. And that’s exactly what happens.
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the directing team essentially making their debut feature (and what a debut feature it is) make it a hell of a slow burn — we might have a sense of where things are going (anyone familiar with the tale of Faust has at least some clue), but not how they’re going to get there.. This is a movie that knows how to properly escalate, beginning with the vague sense that something is wrong (Sarah pulls out clumps of her hair to punish herself) before moving on to creepy auditions and meetings with plastic, smiling, predatory producers and finally cutting loose in its last act. There is a nastiness to the violence on display that makes literal the metaphor of Hollywood being a cutthroat business in wet, graphic detail. Plenty of movies have been made about the lengths wannabe actors will go to achieve stardom; this one just takes that to its logical extreme.
Yes, Starry Eyes is unbelievably cynical about the price of fame and the nature of celebrity. The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to realize that it’s even more cynical about what the culture does to independent filmmakers. I couldn’t say for sure, but I suspect the filmmakers have inserted some very specific and pointed commentary about their own experiences in the industry into their screenplay. To say too much would constitute spoiling certain aspects of the movie, so I’ll just say that those looking to circumvent the system — the ones who aren’t willing to play ball — are rarely rewarded for their noble intentions. Starry Eyes doesn’t have a ton of faith in the power of the can-do indie spirit.
It’s also a movie that both changes and improves on repeat viewings. I’ve seen it three times now; on the first viewing, I was sure I was seeing a movie about a naive young woman who desperately wants to be a star and is chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood system — a girl who would do whatever it takes to be famous but gets more than she bargained for. The second time I saw it, I began to realize it might be a movie about a terrible person who gets exactly what she wants. The direction is so clever and Essoe’s performance so good that the film supports both readings; better yet, it changes the more times you see it and spend time with it. This is a movie we’re going to be talking about 20 years from now.
Starry Eyes arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Dark Sky Films. The 1080p HD image looks very good, as it probably should for a brand new digitally-photographed film. The 2.40 widescreen image boats decent detail, blacks that remain deep and stable and a color palette that’s deliberately monochromatic but faithful to the source. The lossless 5.1 audio track is stunning, delivering clear dialogue and an immersive and clever sound design; Snipes’ synthesizer score is well served (a lot of movies had synth scores in 2014; Snipes’ is the best), while some of the more horrific moments are separated and modulated in a way that’s subtle and effective.
Directors Kolsch and Widmeyer are joined by producer Travis Stevens (who, in addition to producing Starry Eyes, also produced Cheap Thrills, American Muscle and Jodorowsky’s Dune in 2014) for a commentary track in which they give a good overview of how the movie came together. It’s a loose but informative conversation that will undoubtedly be of interest to fans of the film. Also included is a collection of deleted and alternate scenes, some footage from Essoe’s original audition, a short “music video” that shows composer Snipes putting a piece of the score together, a montage of production stills that runs about 10 minutes and the original theatrical trailer. The disc also comes with reversible cover art; the original (and superior) poster art can be found on the inside cover.
For fans of dark and challenging horror, there is so much to love in Starry Eyes. The direction is tight and controlled, the photography precise and formalistic in the way that the horror genre does best. It has the one of year’s best scores. Alex Essoe one of year’s best performances, the kind for which words like “fearless” and “revelatory” are often thrown around only so long as it’s a prestige picture being discussed. Well, to hell with that; Essoe is fearless and revelatory. There are moments and images in the movie that are impossible to shake. Isn’t that what good horror movies are meant to do? To shake us, to haunt us and unsettle us. Starry Eyes does exactly that.
A new classic.