Starry Eyes

Sarah (Alex Essoe, Reaper) is an aspiring actress, but like so many aspiring actresses, she pays the bills by waitressing at a fast food joint. She goes to audition after audition, but just hasn't gotten that lucky break she's been looking for. She struggles with trichotillomania (compulsively pulling out her hair), and every failed audition seems to deepen her depression. Finally, she gets a break: she's invited to audition for the lead role in an upcoming horror film called The Silver Scream. Her friends mock the title, but Sarah is convinced that they're just jealous. This could be her breakout part.

To say that the audition process for The Silver Scream is unconventional would be an understatement. The film's casting director (Maria Olsen, The Lords of Salem) and assistant (Marc Senter, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) begin by asking her to have a deeply personal meltdown in front of them, and later ask her to disrobe in front of them (despite the fact that the role she's auditioning for doesn't require any nudity). After passing these trials, she's introduced to the film's producer (Louis Dezseran, The Blessing), who wants her to... well, I've said enough.

The opening hour or so of Starry Eyes will feel familiar to anyone who's ever worked as an actor, as it offers a more extreme version of the sort of anguish that comes with the audition process (tension before, self-loathing after) and the sort of disheartening compromises actors are often asked to make in order to earn a part. The film asks an interesting question, if not a particularly original one: how far would you go in order to achieve fame?

There's a lot to like about the film's first 2/3rds or so, particularly Essoe's performance as the fame-hungry protagonist. The producers of The Silver Scream put Sarah through a punishing audition process, but they don't punish her half as severely as she punishes herself. Essoe delivers precisely the sort of committed, tormented turn the part requires; playing certain scenes with such intensity that it almost feels physically painful to watch her (there were moments when I was reminded of Jennifer Carpenter's effectively horrifying contortionism in The Exorcism of Emily Rose).

Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer set an effectively unnerving tone from the beginning, and their willingness to allow Sarah's journey to play out as gradually as it does suggests an admirable level of patience and restraint. Unfortunately, that restraint more or less collapses during the final half-hour or so, when the filmmakers toss nerve-jangling suspense out the window in favor of excessive gore and mayhem. Horror movie mavens who tend to judge genre entries on the amount of blood spilled will be pleased, but this chunk of the movie - despite some fleeting moments of striking imagery - is where the storytelling starts to fall apart.

A larger problem is that Kolsch and Widmyer don't seem to trust the audience to pick up on their fairly obvious subtext. They use the producer - played with memorable, bug-eyed sliminess by Dezseran - as a narrative sledgehammer of sorts, giving him lines of dialogue that blatantly spell out the movie's themes. As if that weren't bad enough, they repeat those lines as voiceover dialogue during thematically appropriate moments later in the film. It's as if a flashing "MORAL OF THE STORY" light is blinking at the bottom of the screen.

Considering how effective the more "realistic" portions of the film are, I can't help but wonder if Starry Eyes would have worked better as a Black Swan-style dark melodrama (with the more outlandish horror material playing out in Sarah's mind) than as the as the chaotic gorefest it becomes. This is a movie about the horrors of compromising your integrity for the sake of fame, but the real-life horror of being asked to degrade yourself for a part is presented with greater power than the symbolic horror of being asked to turn into a vile, worm-spewing monster for a part. Still, keep an eye on these guys: they've got a lot of raw talent, and a little more subtlety could go a long way.

Starry Eyes

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2014