Starry Eyes (2014)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #487

 

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Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 8, 2014 (SXSW)
Sub-Genre: Body Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Producer: Travis Stevens
Screenplay: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Special Effects: Hugo Villasenor
Cinematography: Adam Bricker
Score: Jonathan Snipes
Editing: Brody Gusar, Dennis Widmyer
Studios: Snowfort Pictures, Parallactic Pictures, Dark Sky Films, Title Media
Distributors: MPI Media Group, Dark Sky Films
Stars: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabianne Therese, Shane Coffey, Natalie Castillo, Pat Healy, Nick Simmons, Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, Louis Dezseran, Danny Minnick

 

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Suggested Audio Candy:

 

1) Jonathan Snipes “Chrysalis”

2) Jonathan Snipes “She is Ready To Transform/Kissing Tracy”

3) Jonathan Snipes “Starry Eyes”

 

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“Ambition: The blackest of human desires. Everyone has it, but how many act on it?”

 

Hands up if you want to be noticed. Not by old school acquaintances who wish to engage in awkward small talk because it feels like the right thing to do, even though both of you know full well that it isn’t. I’m talking about really being seen. To be watched and admired globally and recognized for your talent. We all know of the success stories, the actors for whom the right role has catapulted them to fame. Their names are up in lights on billboards all around us or, at least, until they fall from grace and Hollywood discards them like soiled sanitary towels. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of young hopefuls aspire to greatness and so many of them are sucked into the black hole of perpetual obscurity.

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We are warned in school that star-gazing can be a dangerous game and encouraged to find ourselves another vocation more likely to pay the bills as the likeliness is that we’ll never locate the end of our rainbow. For some of us, this is shrewd advice, as fame can be a slippery slope and, more often than not, the apex will be out of our reach. But there are always exceptions to the rule and these creative souls simply aren’t designed to punch into menial nine to five jobs day after day. I know as much as I always had the nagging feeling that I was living somebody else’s life and it took a midlife reboot to remind me that my destiny laid elsewhere. Money I can take or leave as I have never paid particular mind to unbounded riches and have precious little respect for currency. Becoming known for my art, however, is a different proposition entirely and I would do pretty much anything to make that dream a reality. I would however draw the line at performing deep-throated fellatio on a senior citizen. More on that later.

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Another such wide-eyed star-gazer is Sarah (Alex Essoe) and when she’s not waiting tables at her dead-end job or watching her “friends” talk the talk about making it big but always while firmly seated, she is attending numerous auditions in the hope that somebody will notice her. She is attractive, kind-hearted and courteous, three qualities which alone are unlikely to fast track her to the top. Countless other young girls fit the same criteria and it is fast becoming clear to Sarah that, to make it to the theatre of dreams, she will be required to push herself farther than she ever previously imagined. Times are becoming desperate and she knows that her measures will need to be similarly aligned if she is to have any hope of realizing her fast-fading dream.

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So when she receives a call from industry big shots Astraeus Pictures and is asked to come in and audition for the leading role in their upcoming movie, The Silver Scream, she is understandably beside herself with excitement. Sadly, her smug self-obsessed peers don’t share her enthusiasm and seem to take great pleasure in reminding her that she’s destined to fall flat on her pretty face. This, in turn, spurs her on to prove them wrong and she prepares for her date with destiny with every last fiber of her body blazing. Ready to own that casting couch, she puffs out her chest, exhales a breath and enters the room exuberant and determined to leave a lasting impression. A few minutes later she leaves, dejected and exhausted of hope.

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There aren’t many plusses to being a trichotillomaniac. Habitually pulling out your hair every time you are stressed is not the best form of therapy for an aspiring actress with no clean line of sight. However, timing is everything and, as she locks herself in her cubicle and has herself a full-blown hissy fit, the right person just so happens to be taking a whizz. This is no ordinary audition and the requirements are particularly unyielding. More of the same is all that is asked although they do so with acidic tongues and without a single please. Sarah reproduces her tantrum in their personal honor, bagging herself the all important captive audience that was lacking the first time she tried out. Suddenly things are looking up and she is more than aware that this gateway role can change everything if she continues to play ball.

 

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“Your face would be on the poster, the poster on a wall, a wall in a lobby, a lobby of a movie theater, a theater with a marquee: The Silver Scream.”

 

After an initially awkward but ultimately freeing second audition, she gets the call she desires more than anything in the world. The producer of Astraeus Pictures (Louis Dezseran) has requested to assess her personally and finally she can tell her boss Carl (Pat Healy) where to stick his apron as she knows she is on the verge of greater things. Having already made it known that she will be prepared to do “anything” to make this role her own, she is held to that and the terms are far more grave than anything she had in mind. While she considers the cost of selling her soul for this one shot and scowling casting director (Maria Olsen) rolls her eyes to her right, the producer’s zipper is lowered and a sixty-year-old cock is the one thing standing in her way.

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I could run you through what happens next and would be guilty of heinous crimes if I did. The experience of Starry Eyes is one you must savor for yourself as I believe we will all look back in thirty years and consider this movie the bona fide masterpiece that it already verges on. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have both landed squarely on my radar and I have a feeling they’ll be enjoying their stay there in the coming years. This is their sophomore full-length feature and their debut, Absence, has already showed the kind of grand vision they peddle. They write and direct side by side, and evidently have a handle on both parts of the process as their screenplay is embellished with diamonds and their lens dipped in white gold. Moreover, their own audition process has gone decidedly well as they have themselves many hands on deck all willing to give this small independent gem the foot up it richly deserves.

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It wouldn’t be right not to start with our leading lady now would it? Essoe may soon have a constellation named after her on this evidence and I don’t know where to begin when relaying her pitch perfect performance back to you. I guess the best place to start is to mention that she takes the term “method” to a whole new level. My case in point is this: in one scene, Sarah wretches up a bile-strewn puddle of maggots and she actually volunteered to lease her mouth to said grubs for the sake of artistry. Every tear shed is wept authentically and her entire soul is invested into making this her own gateway role. She bears so much weight on her slender shoulders and carries her burden beautifully from the opening shot to the jarring final curtain like a true seasoned professional. I believe there are numerous parallels between Essoe and her character and, if there aren’t, then she’s an even better actress than I imagined.

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She’s not alone either as there are a number of notable turns that resonate strongly. Healy impressed me no end in Ti West’s The Innkeepers and here, in far more limited capacity, he makes a character likeable who so could so easily have been hateful. While Carl is one of the more one-dimensional fringe players in the greater scheme of things, excellent writing and sound delivery makes him forgivable for wishing to clip Sarah’s wings. Meanwhile, Amanda Fuller is simply exceptional as well-meaning bestie Tracy especially when she begins running low on ideas of how to stop the rot. Fabianne Therese also gives a similarly potent performance as bitchy faux friend Erin and her green-eyed monster act is a joy to witness.

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Dezseran has only recently returned to his roots after over twenty years in the acting wilderness and makes up for any lost time with a suitably unnerving turn as the producer. As for Olsen, there’s good reason why she is one of the hardest working professionals on the horror circuit as her stony-faced pearls of wisdom corrode the very moment they leave her lips and each look of disdain hangs in the air like toxic mist. Every last pawn has its place, its purpose, and in Sarah we have our queen.

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Ultimately, our unwavering attention belongs to her and her metamorphosis is something that has to be seen to be believed. Think of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and bear in mind that Natalie Portman received a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of lead cygnet Nina. Essoe’s legs are paddling just as frantically beneath the surface here and, moreover, even greater commitment is called for as her rebirth is far more pronounced and literal.

 

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The film has drawn a little criticism for its savage final act and this is poppycock of the highest order. I was deeply shocked by the direction Kölsch and Widmyer decide to take and live in hope of such body blows being administered so I have absolutely no complaints by their decision to go directly for the jugular vein and prise it wide open. There is no predictive text, no signpost to the end credits, just an increasingly erratic exhibition of spiraling madness which runs symmetrical to our leading lady shedding her sorry skin and embracing her dark half’s renascence. Few films reach in quite as deep and tug so hard, and Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision was the last body horror to achieve a handful of my innards. Starry Eyes too has my blood on its hands and I feel greatly privileged to play donor.

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Visually you are in for a masterclass in how to mirror the greats. Director of photography Adam Bricker uses color and shade beautifully and the result is evocative of the work of Dario Argento’s right-hand man Luciano Tovoli which is no small compliment to pay. Meanwhile, Jonathan Snipes’ synthesized score echoes John Carpenter to maximum effect, and his decision to choose an electronic composition over traditional orchestrated strings is more than justified. All stars are aligned and Starry Eyes is the bi-product of significant desire, dedication and, last but by no means least, a dash of fate. That is ultimately what we all dream of and Kölsch, Widmyer and, most critically, Essoe are living, breathing proof that we can create our very own.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Hugo Villasenor’s practical effects really are the icing on a delectable cake and catch us completely off-guard as we just don’t see them coming. Starry Eyes is far more than a simple splatter fest but, when it needs to make its point, it does so with the business end of a dumb bell until little more than bloody pulp remains. The extreme violence here may seem out of context to some and too much for others to stomach but its impact is undeniable and ensures that all bases are soundly covered. Essoe is beyond courageous as she is forced to relinquish any inhibitions and strip away the layers in more ways than one. The fact that she does so without a solitary flinch suggests that she has the makings of a true shining star.

 

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