The Hollywood Nightmare is an idea we often see in films for a reason. Los Angeles is a city where broken dreams of stardom can be found on almost every street corner. One of the downsides for those people that crave financial success in Hollywood is they’re almost always surrounded by it. Beverly Hills is both their dream and their nightmare. Starry Eyes shows one actress that will go as far as she has to one day have that mansion in the Hills.
Sarah (Alex Essoe) is that actress. At the start of the film she works as a “Taters Girl” in a cheesy restaurant that’s basically an even worse version of Hooters. Being a Taters Girl isn’t her endgame, though. She daydreams of stardom. After an embarrassing audition, Astraeus Pictures sees something in her. The off-the-wall casting agents call her back to see more of her dark side, which she may or may not know exists.
In most films, Sarah would be played as a naive and innocent small town girl. In Starry Eyes there’s something off about her from the start. In one telling scene, she laughs when one her friends gets injured. Something is clearly wrong with her. Still, there’s a charm and innocence to Essoe, even in her darker moment, that makes you root for Sarah to make the right decisions. She doesn’t, which is what leads to her some horrifying places.
The physical and mental toll Sarah endures is staggering in the third act, and it’s the character and the film at its weakest. Starry Eyes starts to make all the conventional choices. What makes the first two acts exciting is how directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer create an uneasy atmosphere with an unconventional lead. The editing, the quick flashes of brutal imagery and the sinister score make the character-driven first hour far scarier than the brutality that comes. Kolsch and Widmyer cleverly earn their scares at the start, so when the movie turns into a hack and slash picture, it’s disappointing.
All the gore is first-rate, but not as impressive as the performances. It’s ironic that Starry Eyes is about a young actress catching a big break in a horror, because Essoe should earn plenty of attention for her performance here. She keeps our focus and makes us hope Sarah will choose to do the right thing.
All the performances, in fact, are quite good. The two supporting performances that standout the most are from Fabianne Therese and Pat Healy. What easily could’ve been caricatures — the passive-aggressive friend and the sleazy boss — are humanized. Credit goes to Kolsch and Widmyer’s script, of course, but Therese and Healy nail two scenes that show they’re more than what Sarah thinks of them. They feature revealing character details that don’t need to be in the movie, but it makes Starry Eyes more thoughtful for having them.
Since the acting is better than what’s generally expected from the horror genre, the movie loses its thunder in the third act when the performances are no longer the focus. We want to watch these characters, not watch their faces get smashed in. Thankfully, the finale doesn’t undermine the rest of Starry Eyes. Overall, this is a technically clever, often funny and human horror movie.
The Upside: Captures the often haunting mood of Hollywood; Alex Essoe’s performance; Jonathan Snipes’s score
The Downside: The third act
On The Side: Producer Travis Stevens’s Cheap Thrills opens in limited release on March 21st.