Determined to make it as an actress in Hollywood, Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) spends her days working a dead-end job, enduring petty friendships with other struggling artists and competing actors, and going on countless casting calls in hopes of catching her big break. After a series of strange auditions, Sarah lands the leading role in a film from a mysterious production company. But this opportunity comes with some bizarre conditions that will transform her both mentally and physically into something beautiful ...and altogether terrifying. (From Dark Sky’s original synopsis)
Internet crowd-funding is still a new enough phenomenon that its positive effects on motion pictures is too hard to measure. It’s surely great for a number of artistic/creative endeavors that don’t require a small army of creative people, but, so far, the partial financing of the Veronica Mars movie, Zach Braff’s Wish You Were Here, and Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (an uncredited remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess) appeared to be the height of the format’s achievement in film. Enter Starry Eyes, a critically-acclaimed psychological thriller film from first time writer/director’s Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer that spurred excitement throughout the horror community.
Stylistically, Kölsch & Widmyer take their cues from a number of recent, digitally-shot mumblecore (rather, mumblegore) flicks. Its title cards and electronic music pay homage to ‘70s and ‘80s horror classics, but the handheld cameras, source lighting, desaturated colors, and naturalistic performances all reek of a more current generation of lo-fi filmmakers, like Ti West and Adam Wingard. I usually find this brand of imagery categorically unattractive, which initially made it difficult for me to connect with the film, but, as the story unravels and the delusions escalate, I realized that the mundane, dry appearance actually served the themes quite well. In its broadest terms, Starry Eyes is a film about the ways that lust for social progress can break down one’s personality and the pain of selling out one’s principles for popularity. Its more specific parentage is a long tradition of bleak, hallucinogenic horror movies that play with the conventions of feminine psychosis, measures of success, and beauty standards – especially Roman Polanski’s brand of delirium (movies like Repulsion, 1965, and Rosemary’s Baby, 1968). Another obvious point of reference is Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), which also features a mousy young woman that hides homicidal rage being auditioned for a part under false pretenses.
The revolting physical toll on Sarah’s body and her eventual transformation has garnered critical comparisons to the David Cronenberg’s patented body horror motifs, as seen in Rabid (1977), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986). However, Kölsch & Widmyer focus on the grotesque standards of superficial beauty by insinuating a stronger connection to movies, like Douglas Buck’s Cutting Moments (1997) and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002). The physical stuff is very successful in its drive to disturb the audience, but the more potent horror comes out of the Polanski-like air of conspiracy and the dreadful visual representation of the sexual trials that women are forced to navigate in the real world (the scenes of phony, catty art student types passive aggressively vying for attention nearly drove me to PTSD, personally). Sarah is plagued by doubt, beset by sexual harassment, and clashes with a jealous ‘frenemy’ that not-so-quietly subverts her every achievement. Kölsch & Widmyer fix the audience in Sarah’s point-of-view, making it difficult and scary for us to differentiate between reality of the crappy Hollywood game and the (supposed?) fantasy of cult figures that ruin the lives of would-be starlets. In fact, Sarah’s revolting corporeal deterioration is almost a relief. It reminds us that we’re watching a horror movie, not a documentary about the terrors of creative failure.
In the spirit of Audition and Repulsion, Starry Eyes unfolds in a slow burn and the filmmakers are mostly successful in the way they casually lead the audience between disturbing behavior into depraved violence. However, in the unfortunate tradition of mumblecore horror, the lackadaisical middle act begins to overstay its welcome. I don’t think it would’ve damaged Kölsch & Widmyer’s delicate structure to trim maybe ten minutes from the 98-minute long runtime. The finale doesn’t quite live up to the standards and expectations that are set during the earlier acts (the slaughter isn’t as satisfying as its lead-up). Still, my disappointment with the climactic carnage (I feel so jaded saying this, because it is pretty gory) doesn’t change the fact that the directors’ effectively convey the tragedy of Sarah’s self-imposed isolation.
Alex Essoe’s vein-bursting performance is so vital that the film plays out almost like a show reel for her skill-set (not so ironic, given the subject matter). The value of her role is found less in the violent, hair-tearing screaming fits and more in her steady decline into madness. In her ‘natural state,’ Sarah seems to be going through the motions of a pleasant existence. What appears as somewhat stilted acting on Essoe’s part is actually a deft portrayal of a troubled individual pretending to be normal. As her demeanor is shaded by desire, she doesn’t have to make-believe anymore and, following her physical breakdown and acceptance of her dark side, she becomes quite comfortable with being evil, which leads us to wonder if she was ever a good person in the first place.
According to the credits at the end of the movie, Starry Eyes was shot on Red Epic digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p video. The directors and cinematographer Adam Bricker shoot practically the entire movie in low light and employed digital grade to make it appears particularly desaturated. The overall darkness and use of glowing practical lighting sources create some clarity issues. There are a lot of digital artifacts fluttering throughout the film, including a minor sheen of fuzzy noise, slight cross-colouration, and sometimes very distracting banding effects. The banding is magnified by a circular motif that darkens the corners and edges of the frame. I assume that most of these artifacts are built into the film and not the result of bad mastering or too much compression on Dark Sky’s part. The soft focus and smooth blends don’t leave much room for heavy contrast or pure black levels, but dynamic details are relatively clean, especially clothing patterns and (when they’re lit well enough) fine textures. One minor spoiler concerning the transfer: after Sarah’s climactic ‘rebirth,’ the film briefly becomes brighter, warmer, and generally clearer, signifying her newfound emotional clarity.
Like many low-budget genre pictures, Starry Eyes covers its lack of funds with an aggressive sound design. This disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is based on a simple, single-channel sound that was caught on-set, including dialogue and incidental sound effects. These sounds are generally consistent without any notable dips in clarity or unusual changes in volume. The additional effects added to fill-out the stereo and surround channels have a semi-phony/overly-digital quality to them, but aren’t awkwardly compressed and create the desired effect of subjective aural movement. Jonathan Snipes’ retro synth score, which fills in for effects during the most stylistic sequences, is delightfully infectious and mixed to include a solid LFE bottom. My only complaint is that there aren’t enough late-‘80s, John Carpenter meets Fabio Frizzi dance themes. There’s no rule against putting cool retro music over dramatic scenes, guys!
Commentary with writer/directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and producer Travis Stevens – I’ll be honest, I skipped around on this track a lot. Not because I was bored or because the commentators were being anything less than pleasant and informative, but because I kind of wanted to remain ‘unspoiled’ on their inspirations and intentions. The parts I sampled sounded spirited and informative, though.
10 deleted scenes (11:40, HD)
Jonathan Snipes’ music video for the cue entitled ‘Fever Dreams’ (2:30, HD)
Alex Essoe's audition video (13:50, HD)
Behind-the-scenes photo gallery
Theatrical trailer and trailers for other Dark Sky releases
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