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Film Review: ‘Starry Eyes’

Alex Essoe gives a knockout performance as an aspiring actress who pays a serious price for stardom in this gory horror-thriller.

Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabianne Therese, Shane Coffey, Natalie Castillo, Pat Healy, Nick Simmons, Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, Louis Dezseran.

The oft-told tale of a struggling actress seeking her first big break gets a juicy new spin in the psychodrama/body-horror hybrid “Starry Eyes.” Featuring a knockout performance by Alex Essoe as a sweet young hopeful who transforms into a nasty, feral nutcase after selling much more than her soul to a shadowy production company, the pic pushes the Tinseltown nightmare scenario to inventive and exciting extremes. Though it’s a tad overcranked in the final furlong, the sheer energy on display and a devilishly compelling plot ultimately win the day. Presently touring the genre fest circuit, “Starry Eyes” looks like a difficult theatrical proposition but should be in high demand on streaming platforms.

Writing-directing duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer set their film in a “Day of the Locust”-like society of Hollywood fringe-dwellers whose dreams are never going to come true. The starry eyes in question belong to twentysomething Sarah Walker (Essoe), an instantly compelling mix of bubbly self-belief and debilitating insecurity who makes ends meet as a waitress at Hot Tatas, a fast-food joint of the Hooters variety. Stuck on the familiar actors’ treadmill of slogging it out in the service industry while waiting to be discovered by the entertainment business, the aspiring thesp has just one acting prospect: a movie planned by Danny (Noah Segan), a wannabe filmmaker who lives in his van and appears to have no realistic chance of turning talk into reality.

The game-changer is Sarah’s audition for “The Silver Scream,” a dark tale about Hollywood from Astraeus Pictures, a long-established company whose prominence has declined in recent years. Believing she’s flubbed the tryout, Sarah runs to the bathroom, where her pent-up frustration is released in an extraordinary series of primal screams and tortured facial expressions, accompanied by the tearing out of large clumps of hair. Having accidentally witnessed this scene, Astraeus’ unnamed and frighteningly humorless casting director (Maria Olsen) offers Sarah a second chance. “We’ll be in touch” has rarely sounded so creepy as when a similarly stone-faced and unnamed production assistant (Marc Senter, sounding uncannily like Crispin Glover) tells Sarah she’s in the running for the lead role.

The story slithers nicely toward its horror elements via the headquarters of Astraeus Pictures. Summoned to a meeting room that looks as if it hasn’t been redecorated since 1945, Sarah is offered the part, provided she performs sexual favors for the company’s unnamed boss (Louis Dezseran), a sleazy oldster with an overdone suntan and impossibly white teeth. Several days after rejecting these overtures, Sarah reconsiders and seals the deal in a dreamlike sequence that’s a bit short on information about the exact nature of the Astraeus cult, but leaves no doubt her destiny is now in the hands of satanic forces, or something very similar.

Cleverly reversing the traditional pattern of a Faustian pact, where rewards come first and heavy tolls are exacted later, Kolsch and Widmyer’s screenplay sends Sarah into severe physical and emotional decline. Starting with an assault on her Hot Tatas boss, Carl (Pat Healy, “Cheap Thrills”), and a falling out with her kind-hearted roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller), Sarah’s downward spiral continues with radical hair loss and terrible facial blemishes that give her the appearance of the most badly strung-out junkie. Her condition gets much worse from there. Although the bloodbath that follows is gorier and more sadistic than is probably required, the filmmakers keep a firm grip on their underlying themes of transformation and reinvention en route to a highly satisfying climax.

In her first starring role, Essoe is outstanding as both the fragile Sarah and the subhuman psycho she becomes. Healy adds spark as the talkative fast-food boss, and Fabianne Therese is spot-on as Erin, a fellow acting hopeful and fake friend who ends up paying a hefty price for her thinly veiled desire to see Sarah fail. Gradually changing its color spectrum from bright and warm to dark and grungy, the pic is well served by lenser Adam Bricker and production designer Melisa Jusufi. Ranging from tinkly tunes of the ballerina-music-box type to driving ’80s-style synth-pop power chords, Jonathan Snipes’ excellent score nails the mood at every moment. All other tech credits are on the money.

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Film Review: 'Starry Eyes'

Reviewed at Puchon Intl. Fantastic Film Festival (World Fantastic Cinema), July 19, 2014. (Also in SXSW, Fantasia film festivals; FrightFest.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Snowfort Pictures, Parallactic Pictures production, in association with Dark Sky Films. (International sales: MPI Media Group, Orland Park, Ill.) Produced by Travis Stevens. Executive producers, Malik Ali, Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Greg Newman, Giles Daoust, John Jarzemsky, Aaron B. Koontz, Gina Wilbur.

Crew: Directed, written by Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Adam Bricker; editors, Brody Gusar, Widmyer; music, Jonathan Snipes; production designer, Melisa Jusufi; art directors, Jeremy Jonathan White, Chloe Knapp; costume designer, Malia Miyashiro; sound (Dolby Digital), Brett Bach, Ken Cain; visual effects, Sota FX; special makeup effects, Hugo Villasenor; stunt coordinator, Scott Miller; line producer, Jon D. Wagner; assistant director, Dave Casper; casting, Cleo Valente.

With: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabianne Therese, Shane Coffey, Natalie Castillo, Pat Healy, Nick Simmons, Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, Louis Dezseran.

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