The horror genre has exploded in the past few years, thanks to the same technological and funding possibilities that have made other genres (such as mumblecore) feasible. One need only look at Netflix to understand that there is a flood of new genre filmmaking out there, films shot on video and sold directly to on-demand or streaming services without ever reaching a theater (or with very limited local releases). I am a horror fan, but have not touched many of these films, as they look like derivative time wasters. They often feature electronic scores, and reference horror films from the ’70s, primarily the Italian stylists (Argento, Fulci, et al) who also made relatively early use of electronica, or perhaps zombie or body horror films from the ’80s, Cronenberg and Romero leading the list of influences in that department. I have not ignored this body of work, but merely sampled it. An early entry, the anthology film V/H/S, in which mumblecore directors explored their video influences, was quite good – the sequel was also strong, if a bit spottier. (I have not watched any of the further entries in the series). Mostly, though, these films are long on style and short on substance. The catalog of Ti West remains preeminent in this regard; he has a good sense of the look of a genre film, but somehow can’t deliver actual scares or much tension. Yet, he is considered an auteur and his films taken seriously even though, to my mind, they have declined in quality since his most well-known film, 2009’s The House of the Devil. Other runners in this race include Beyond the Black Rainbow, by Panos Cosmatos, a mash-up of Cronenberg’s clinical settings with the plot of Blue Sunshine, which, aside from a decent soundtrack, a great mid-film high contrast drug trip sequence, and nice set design was quite dull and, in the end, utterly ridiculous; Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s pretentious mishmash of body and eco horror (although some would consider this too “refined” a film to be included in this bunch, as it does set a trotter in art film territory); and You’re Next, a nothing-special home invasion/giallo thriller that I nonetheless found compelling and which at least built up to a tense surprise ending.
Starry Eyes fits squarely into this group of films, yet rises above mere stylization. Part of the reason for this is that it’s not particularly stylized; it hints at the era of influence noted above, primarily in its title sequences and with its soundtrack, but otherwise it looks more like a contemporary indie movie rather than a pseudo-relic. What is interesting about the film is the way it fits body horror elements into what is a critique of the Hollywood image machine and the allure of stardom, while acknowledging that such an allure is, in many ways, anachronistic and bygone in this era of DIY filmmaking and the Internet’s intervention in traditional notions of celebrity. The plot of the film centers on Sarah, an aspiring actress who lives in L.A. and spends her days, when not auditioning, working as a waitress at a fast food restaurant that exploits her sexuality. Sarah is something of a misfit. She doesn’t seem to have any real friends (most of her socializing is with her roommate and her friends, millennial bohemians who seem satisfied making their own opportunities, or making none) and her bedroom wall is plastered with pictures of the stars of Old Hollywood: Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and other glamour queens of the 1940s. Sarah aspires to be something that doesn’t really exist anymore, a movie star. Not a celebrity, or a successful and popular actress, but a star – someone who leaves behind their past, and their quotidian self (body included) to become a pure object of desire, an image. Perhaps obviously, she’s having a hard time fulfilling this goal, and tends toward the neurotic – when things don’t work out, as when she has a bad audition, she tends to pull her hair from her head and let out a hearty yell or two. Something is not quite right with Sarah, but she has no backstory, so we don’t know what it might be, and further, she manages to pass in her contemporary world, if not particularly successfully. All of this changes when she goes on an audition for a rather generic seeming horror film, called The Silver Scream; we see her act, and she has chops, but the creepy casting crew (a young man and a middle-aged woman) appear uninterested. Uninterested, that is, until the woman happens by the bathroom stall in which Sarah is self-abusing, and then she gets called back in, to audition her “fit.” A bit unnerved, but wanting to please, Sarah does so, and a few days later, gets a call-back, during which she is instructed to disrobe, and, standing in a pitch-black room illuminated only by spotlight, auditions a fuller version of the fit, in which she fantasizes about being a star. This leads to an interview with the producer of the film, a nameless man who runs a production company called Astraeus Pictures; Sarah’s “friends” are jealous, and the more knowledgeable among them validates that this is a real, prestigious company, albeit a bit old and without more recent successes. This jealousy soon evaporates, however, as when Sarah turns up at the producer’s mansion, she is offered the leading role only in exchange for unnamed sexual favors proffered to the leering, slightly goggle-eyed, tan, and 60ish producer. She flees the scene, and settles for a starring role in the DIY film being put together by the millennials, but after dropping some E, along with her inhibitions, she heeds the old man’s admonitions to “do,” not just “tell,” and goes for the unsavory deal rather than settle for the slow, self-contented paths of her cohort. She does indeed give the producer some head, and passes out as hooded, masked, and robed unknowns come hither out of the shadows. When she awakes, she begins a process of transformation which will lead to the destruction of her old body (as foretold by the producer), along with requisite blood sacrifices. By the end of the film, she will have attained her dream, but at the cost of her identity, “Sarah” being nothing but an empty signifier left behind.
What unfolds in the second half of the movie is a combination of body horror in the service of a somewhat sketchy alternative history of Hollywood, in which the movers and shakers are a cult of immortals who have traded in their original identities, and bodies, for eternal life and a place in the firmament. Like many of the films I mentioned earlier, all of this is not explicitly fleshed out, and the details are indeed vague. At the same time, unlike the films mentioned above, Starry Eyes manages to walk that thin line between overly explicit exposition, which can lead to plot holes, ridiculousness, and hence disappointment on the one hand, and under-baked symbolism, which can lead to pretentiousness and an outcome that we could not care less about. For instance, the film names the cult, and hints, through plot developments and the visuals, at the (quite real) occult history of Hollywood, without explaining where its powers come from, or dragging hoary old Satan into the mix. We also understand that Sarah is transforming, and that the outcome will vault her into the company of these elect, without really having to understand how she is changing, or being asked to believe that these elect are really existing players in the film community – they are representative of the eternal power of the image, rather than actual people (that is, we don’t see Veronica Lake and friends at the eventual cult shindig during which Sarah casts off her old form). While some of the processes of transformation Sarah undergoes are a bit overdone and trite (she looses her fingernails, and vomits up some maggots, for a second causing viewers to fear she might be auditioning for the role of Mrs. Brundlefly), by and large the changes she undergoes are in her demeanor. We suddenly feel like we are seeing the “real” Sarah, the hidden, angry, and assertive person only hinted at before. The bloodletting that occurs as Sarah sacrifices her “friends” calls to mind the Manson murders (another significant piece in the puzzle of old Hollywood occultism) without any explicit visual punning. Be warned, the last part of this film is very gory indeed; even I, jaded old hand at such effects that I am, winced and groaned a few times. The movie does not satisfy completely, as it reads more as an allegory than as a story we become invested in (Sarah is a bit too remote and strange for us as well), but it is an effective allegory, and, I might even venture, a poetic one. In its positioning of Sarah as an avatar of a bygone golden age of filmdom, the movie questions the nostalgia we screen lovers feel for the allure of such lost glamorous beings; perhaps the current era, more critical, reflexive, and honest in its idol making (and breaking), is not so bad after all. Perhaps.