Starry Eyes (2014)
98 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).
People tend to go to Hollywood to pursue their dream and make it big, but dreams require sacrifice in such a big, cutthroat town. There's always a price, and dignity is the first sacrificial lamb, says the ballsy, diabolically disturbing horror indie "Starry Eyes," if an actress wants to attain stardom. Writer-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer find the pitch-black, hopelessly cruel underbelly of Los Angeles and the pure ugliness in an ingenue. Marked with the tragic, creepy-as-hell power only the horror genre can offer when it's done supremely well as it is here, the film is so insanely watchable and emotionally gutting that the viewer won't know what hit them. Kolsch and Widmyer have such a brave and intelligent handle on their satirically bleak horror story that, given its ambiguous occult angle and final slasher vibe, "Starry Eyes" still works on a much darker, deeper and sadder level.
Like any struggling actor living in Los Angeles, Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe) still waits for her big break. With no other credits to her name, she is modest but will do whatever it takes to become noticed as an actress. Waiting for callbacks from every audition is her priority, while she works at cheesy Hooters-like restaurant "Big Taters" (Pat Healy plays her boss) to pay the bills for an apartment she rents with roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) and barely tolerates the lack of support from her circle of friends, primarily the passive-aggressive Erin (Fabianna Therese). When she finds a casting call for the lead role in production company Astraeus Pictures' upcoming horror movie, 'The Silver Scream," Sarah jumps at the chance to try out and show them her chops. Trying out in front of a snarky assistant (Marc Senter) and a stern casting director (Maria Olsen), she fears her first audition went poorly, so she goes to the restroom and has one of her hair-pulling fits. When exiting the stall, Sarah runs into the stern casting director, who asks her to repeat just that in front of them. This is just the beginning, but what follows, like getting her foot in the door and meeting the lascivious older film producer (Louis Dezseran) who tries propositioning her, seals the deal that Sarah is the one Astraeus Pictures has been looking for all along.
"If you can't fully let yourself go, how can you ever transform into something else?" asks the casting director. It is a chilling question, and once it's posed, the old Sarah is officially gone. Before Sarah is reborn, she deteriorates, not only mentally but physically, and she's not about to let her unsupportive friends get in the way. Everyone else in Sarah's life, including a young film director Danny (Noah Segan) who lives out of his dead van, is a counterpoint to the older producer, who's actually spot-on in saying that people spend too much time talking about doing what they want instead of just doing it. You have to do the work, and self-respect be damned, Sarah does the work. It helps that Sarah is established with having genuine talent, which is obviously from the strength of Alexandra Essoe's performance, and how poorly she takes rejection from the get-go (her masochistic hair-pulling is akin to someone biting their nails). Looking like a taller Anna Kendrick, Essoe tackles the emotionally and physically complex role and reaches for the desperation in herself to make Sarah's crumbling psyche believable, devastating, and unsettling before the person she once was is lost forever.
Free of compromise, "Starry Eyes" is a grotesque, black-hearted indictment on Hollywood, as well as the perfect companion piece to both 2012's small masterpiece "Entrance" and 2013's STD horror indie "Contracted." The film appreciably takes its time before its sucker punch of a payoff, with Jonathan Snipes' music score hauntingly mixing synth beats and an almost-childlike twinkliness. Once the monstrous Sarah begins her bloody rampage, it's startlingly visceral and effectively repulsive, though with more motivated intent behind it rather than just gore-for-gore's-sake exploitation. There are many shocks, but one involving a dumbbell made this viewer's mouth drop, and when a film can still shock (and not in a senseless, amateurish, "I'm-going-to-gross-you-out" sort of way), it's a shock to one's entire system. "Starry Eyes" is bound to stick in the viewer's mind for days and then some. If this is what selling your soul for a gateway acting part looks like, then writing about acting will just have to do.
Grade: A -