Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.
The older I get, I find myself getting less rattled by conventional movie monsters and more unsettled by real-life horror. Just a couple weeks ago, I watched Chained (2012), which I’d tab as one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. That film focused on a kidnapper taking a young boy hostage and making him his servant as he abducted and killed helpless young women.
Now, I’m faced with Starry Eyes, another film that takes a very real situation and uses it as the basis for a horror film. Granted, writers/directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer take a page out of The Evil Dead playbook and double-down on some insanely gory, squirm-inducing body horror in the final act of the film, but the framework of the film is one that blends the seedy annals of Hollywood with the Satanic Panic of the 70s. Think The Neon Demon if it had a little throwback flare. All the more curious is how Starry Eyes predated the Earth-shattering Weinstein effect that rocked Hollywood by three years.
Kölsch and Widmyer keep their film feature directorial debut laser-focused on Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe), an aspiring actress currently paying rent by working at a tacky restaurant with a stickler manager (Pat Healy) constantly up her ass. She lives with/around several other fresh faces looking for their breakout role, and their dynamic is less that of friends and more colleagues they hope to steamroll en route to stardom. The cattiness and rampant back-handed banter between them all is realistically conveyed.
Suddenly, Sarah’s break seems to have arrived. She gets called to audition for the lead role in a film called “The Silver Scream.” When the casting directors (Maria Olsen and Marc Senter) dismiss her read, Sarah has a physical and mental breakdown in the bathroom stall, and she rips her hair out from the roots in a fit of rage. This catches the attention of one of the directors, who implores to see more of that in her second audition. Sarah soon finds herself a frontrunner for the role, much to the envy of her peers. But the deal she makes with the devil (aka the producer, Louis Dezseran) leads to something much more sinister.
After Sarah proves herself worthy to the producer — the conclusion you draw is probably the right one — the film takes a Cronenbergian turn by doubling down on body horror. Sarah starts to rot before our eyes: her skin peels, her nails fall off, she vomits maggots, and blood seeps out of every one of her orifices. Make no mistake: Kölsch and Widmyer make you wait for this bloodshed. Their restraint is remarkable. Sarah’s disintegration into a barely breathing corpse of a human is saved for the final act of the film, so buried you’d have every reason to think you were watching a reticent, indie examination of selling your soul to the devil.
This dramatic tonal shift would be tragic, inexplicable even, if not for the way Kölsch and Widmyer remain hyper-focused on Sarah. Alexandra Essoe gives a downright exceptional, multilayered performance as the heroine who becomes an antihero the more time we spend with her. An interesting cog Kölsch and Widmyer throw in the wheel of the film comes in the second half, when individuals we pegged early as villains start to show a more sympathetic side, none more than Sarah’s boss at her day-job. Initially, he comes across as a tryhard manager at a dead-end job; the male overlord of a plethora of female servants (not terribly unlike Dezseran’s producer). However, when Sarah grovels for her job back, he shows genuine concern for her wellbeing in a way we didn’t expect.
Even Sarah’s so-called friends try to offer support when they see her physical health deteriorate, curbing our initial impressions of them in the process. Starry Eyes is so married to Sarah’s viewpoint of the world, that it becomes clear as the film marches on that the world we see is filtered through her judgment, with certain individuals marked as ones ostensibly committed to seeing her fail. This often not the case, not in our own lives, and not in Sarah’s. But a confining sense of reality leads us to believe such things, and in fact makes Starry Eyes one of the more notable thrillers you might’ve missed in recent years.
NOTE: As of this writing, Starry Eyes is available to stream on Tubi, free of charge, and Peacock, with a subscription.
Starring: Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Pat Healy, Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, and Louis Dezseran. Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!