While most horror films are acquired tastes, "Starry Eyes," a nasty B-movie about an aspiring starlet who makes a deal with the Devil, is almost certainly bound to be divisive. "Starry
Eyes" is as gory as it is corrosively cynical, a supernatural mood
piece that's equally influenced by the arthouse horror movies of David
Lynch and Roman Polanski, and the grindhouse-ready Satanic Panic films
of the '70s, like "To the Devil a Daughter," and "The Devil Rides out."
What sets "Starry
Eyes" apart from its predecessors is its thoughtful focus on lead
protagonist Sarah's (Alex Essoe) monstrous ambition. Co-writer/director
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer implicate every Hollywood type they can
think of, including exploitative casting agents and jealous rival
actresses. But inevitably, they reveal that none of the people that
either mocked, or tried to use Sarah pushed her to do anything she
didn't already want to do. Inevitably, Kolsch and Widmyer blame Sarah
for her poor decisions, making an already dark film that much more grim.
Because appearances are everything in "Starry Eyes," Kolsch and Widmyer immediately suggest that Sarah is at least a little unhinged. In an early character-defining scene, she slowly, and methodically tears out a handful of her long hair. Sarah later explains that this is her version of biting her fingernails, a way for her to stay in the moment. But in the very beginning, all we know about Sarah's bad habit is the sickening sound of her hair coming out, the glare caused by the bathroom mirror's fluorescent lighting, and the side-long reflection that looks back at Sarah.
From there, we're confronted with the jarring difference between the wearying world Sarah is already part of, and the dark one she aspires to be inducted into. For the moment, Sarah waits tables at a tacky diner, and is plagued by her roommates' passive-aggressive, concern-troll-type "compliments." So it's not surprising that Sarah willfully ignores everything that's objectively creepy about her audition for an upcoming horror film called "The Silver Scream." The film's Roger Corman-like production company is well-known enough to make Sarah's friends jealous, and her role is substantial enough that when she flunks out of her first audition, she starts pulling at her hair. But when the film's freaky-looking casting director and her assistant (Maria Olsen and Marc Senter) find out about Sarah's habit, they suddenly become very interested in Sarah.
Sarah then descends into a highly self-absorbed kind of madness. Since her body is the first thing to change, Widmyer and Kolsch explicitly crib from David Cronenberg's body horror films, particularly "The Fly." Sarah's skin peels, her nails flake off, her teeth fall out, and her blood covers everything. Unless you're a gorehound, this grisly transformation isn't necessarily captivating, though it is filmed with the requisite patience, and attention to atmospheric detail that makes the best splatter films worth remembering. If you have a strong enough stomach, you won't be able to look away once Sarah's body starts doing things you would never want to see a human body do.
But wait, there's more: Widmeyer and Kolsch make matters much worse for Sarah by revealing that the people who held her back earlier also happen to be human beings. That's not a spoiler: Sarah's world just expands in such a way that you can eventually see the film's obnoxious supporting characters as more than one-note bullies. Take for example Carl (Pat Healy), Sarah's boss at her diner day job. Like many of the characters Healy plays, Carl is a nervous wreck who tries and fails to hide his insecurity by acting blustery and cruel. He ogles Sarah early on, but he also shows concern for her when she starts to fall apart. Carl is not a mentor figure, and is definitely not a good guy. But he's also not just out to get Sarah, as she wrongfully assumes. The same is true of Sarah's catty friends, who show real concern for her, even if that concern is of the ew-get-it-out-of-my-face variety.
Sarah, on the other hand, becomes a real monster. Again, that's not a spoiler since "Starry Eyes" is consistently focused on its heroine and her all-consuming insecurities. Widmyer and Kolsch are smart enough to know that, after a point, Sarah is responsible for her actions since she let her insecurity cloud her judgment. She is, in that sense, always presented as a monster since she's always trying to refashion herself in a way that make an asset of her poor body image. "Starry Eyes" may leave you feeling hopeless, but its bleak vision of masochistic perfectionism is clear-eyed, cogent, and devastatingly unsettling.