Exploring body horror this month here at Nightmare on Film Street, I wanted to close January out with a bit of a twist on the sub-genre. Obviously with ‘body’ in the name, the sub-genre deals with physical effects on the body a majority of the time. However, the movie I’m looking at today uniquely integrates more of the psychological aspects. It asks what is scarier; what could happen to your body? Or, the idea that your own body doesn’t belong to you?
Starry Eyes is a 2014 film directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, telling a wicked Hollywood tale of how the price of fame costs a lot more than just an arm and a leg. The movie follows a struggling actress who is offered a chance at stardom in exchange for submitting her mind, body, and soul to the mysterious production company, Astraeus Pictures. As the film progresses, we watch Sarah destroy her body and descend into madness posing the question: what are you willing to do to get what you want?
This little gem is one of my all-time favorites and is directed by the duo taking on the 2019 Pet Sematary. Starry Eyes is dark, but oozes a simplistic style. Boasting a sinister, yet innocent score over a not-so-sunny Los Angeles mirrors the bleakness one can feel in Hollywood making for great atmosphere. This movie also contains some skin crawling make-up and brutal, bloody practical effects. So let’s dive into this delicious body horror movie before we find out if dead really is better.
It’s All in Your Head…
The cool thing about Starry Eyes is the first half is a psychological drama that seamlessly transitions into a supernatural body horror. There’s also some creepy cult stuff too, but we’ll get to all of that. First, let’s lay a little groundwork. For the many things this film is, balancing psychological and body horror elements, Starry Eyes also functions as a satirical commentary on the Hollywood film scene. Our protagonist Sarah is stuck in the cycle of many struggling actresses: she’s working at a sleazy restaurant, auditions are going nowhere, and her friends are all self-absorbed. Sarah lacks focus and motivation, feeling lost in a sea of Millennials trying to do the same thing. Sound familiar?
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From the opening scene, we already see that Sarah is harsh on her physical appearance, examining her body in the mirror with a face of uncertainty. This is taken a step further; following a failed audition, she violently pulls her own hair, a possible sign of more serious Trichotillomania. She will later explain that she’s punishing herself, she’d rather punish her appearance than admit she’s not the best actress. This unfortunately is a reality in Hollywood, people tend invest more into their looks than their talent. This is only a glimpse into the film world, just as hair pulling is only a glimpse of the body horror to come.
Sarah’s feelings of inferiority are pushed even further following another audition. The casting directors treat her as if she is no one special, illustrated as Sarah exits to a line of actresses who are almost identical. She punishes herself in the bathroom once more, unaware one of the casting directors was in there. She asks Sarah to come back to the audition room to demonstrate. Sarah successfully lands a call-back and at the first sign of positive feedback, she immediately quits her job. All body horror films include some sort of metamorphosis, and again with Starry Eyes, we have a physical and mental transformation. This the start of Sarah’s psychological changes. This film uses body horror as a metaphor for ambition. What are you willing to get what you want? Sarah must shed her skin and evolve into something new for the fame desire. What she doesn’t know is it would be both figuratively and literally.
One of the strengths of Starry Eyes is the impeccable pacing. As the film progresses, the film inches closer to horror, the tone gets exceedingly dark. Following the callback, Sarah takes a meeting with The Producer where he offers the offers her the role if she was willing to become more than what she is, that they will make her a star. She rejects a sexual advance and leaves upset, questioning if she should have done it. This the psychological body horror I’m talking about, a very real fear anyone in an industry has. The idea of surrendering your body in favor of your career. Looking retroactively, Starry Eyes was a horrific metaphor for the #MeToo movement before it would turn the entertainment industry on its head years later.
Let’s Get Physical!
Now let’s get to the good stuff. Sarah’s physical transformation begins after she goes back to The Producer while on a drug trip. The culty nature of Astraeus is revealed as Sarah submits willingly herself to them in perhaps the most uncomfortable scene of the film, and this is still before the blood! Immediately after, Sarah’s body begins to deteriorate faster than you can say “Brundlefly”. The Producer’s words about ambition and sacrifice haunt Sarah’s dreams. Her nails are coming off, her hair is coming out, and she randomly bleeding. Now doesn’t this go against the idea of the film, her body is supposed to be everything?
Going back into the psychological elements, Sarah starts to believe this suffering is necessary. Becoming famous isn’t supposed to be easy. She must sacrifice everything: her body, her mind, and even her friends. Keeping you on your toes, Starry Eyes shifts again, now we’re into slasher territory. The third act of the film is filled to the brim with blood as Sarah offs her friends in grisly fashion. Which begs the question: has Sarah lost it or is she finally taking control of her life? Murder or not, empowerment is empowerment? Again, this is a surreal look at those whose lives are infected by the toxicity of Hollywood every day. They exploit your body, then destroy it.
In the wake of her carnage, Astraeus Pictures stayed true to their word and “transformed” her. Another reason that makes this film unique is did Sarah actually overcome her fears and transformation, or embrace it? Was the cost worth it? The multiple layers of the mental and physical body horrors give you a feeling of uncertainty, questioning your morality and the bleak horror of what it can be like in Hollywood. Or any location or profession in the world that sacrifices your body. But Starry Eyes shows how even just the idea of making that sacrifice can be just as scary.
Starry Eyes stretches the definition of a body horror movie. While still having traditional elements narrative wise and gore, it expands on the sub-genre on the effects on your mind, the brain is apart of your body after all. But the psychological elements definitely don’t distract you from how brutal and gross it is. This film is absolutely fantastic, lead by a brilliant performance by Alexandra Essoe and the strong direction from the Kolsch-Widmyer duo. Similar to It Follows with a blending of genre elements and surreal atmosphere, Starry Eyes similarly mirrors and exaggerates the world its portraying. The editing is also superb, with subversive color correction and sound design that keeps you uneasy the entire film. I’ve been singing the praises of this movie for years, so hopefully my case for it as a genre-defining body horror will lead to much-needed recognition for this brilliant film.