Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
There’s a kind of expectation among horror fans that the average piece of horror cinema should entertain as much as it terrifies; should titillate as much as it repulses. The most visceral nature of the genre is only fleetingly embraced in truth, because the average fan doesn’t often want to descend completely into unrestrained cruelty, sadism or social commentary. Each thrust of the knife is primarily meant to send a giddy little misanthropic thrill through the audience, not make them feel genuinely uncomfortable or burdened with excess empathy for the body being torn apart by the blade. As Paste movies editor Jacob Oller recently observed in a conversation about the genre, “most people want ‘fun’ horror, not ‘ruin your night’ horror.”
Starry Eyes is unabashedly the latter, and that can’t help but limit its mass appeal on some level. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2014 psychological horror thriller is a story of sacrifice and transformation in the name of achieving one’s ambitions, at the cost of your soul. It’s an obvious metaphor for the way the Hollywood system chews up, degrades and spits out its would-be talent as they debase themselves in an effort to break through, abandoning whatever ideals they once possessed in the process. It’s a film about Tinseltown’s ability to psychologically break all who dare to dream, and rebuild them into something far worse. And the last word that anyone is using to describe it is “fun.”
Starry Eyes is the story of Sarah (Alexandra Essoe), an aspiring leading lady stuck in the same kind of dead-end waitressing job as so many thousands (or millions) of other L.A. inhabitants. She treads water in her soul-deadening work, searching for auditions that seem perpetually out of reach, obviously inadequate among a sea of other young women who look and sound exactly like her. Sarah has a dream, but she has no dynamism, and it should be obvious to anyone who sees her that she’s simply not going to make it in this town. Her friends, meanwhile, are no help—they’re equally career minded and lacking in any kind of empathy for Sarah’s struggles, even as they casually land jobs that she would perceive as her “big break.” It’s clear that something has to give—either Sarah needs to give up, or she needs a powerful intercession on her behalf. And wouldn’t you know it, one just happens to be available … with a monstrous price.
In terms of archetypes, this is a story we’ve all heard before, all the way back to Doctor Faustus—success, power and happiness are all within reach for those who are desperate enough to strike a bargain with the infernal powers. In Sarah’s case, she gets a callback for a part where she blew the first audition in spectacular fashion, only to be told that the job is waiting for her … if she’s willing to prove her commitment toward transformation. So begins Sarah’s physical, mental and spiritual decay, as she initially resists and then greedily gives in to a sinister agenda.
One could perhaps tell this sort of story as a horror comedy by approaching the material in a fundamentally different manner, but Starry Eyes is quite sober, preferring its audience to experience genuine discomfort rather than tawdry thrills. One might expect to be rooting for Sarah to gorily dispatch the Hollywood sycophants in her orbit, but instead the viewer becomes fixated on the impending doom of Sarah’s final loss of humanity—the surrender of everything that makes a person, a person. There’s no dark, cynical humor to be found in the moment that our protagonist finally takes up the knife and uses it on another human being—only the squelchy, ultra-realistic moment of no return, when Starry Eyes fully reaches its status as a modern horror tragedy. There’s probably some viewer out there who would try to spin Sarah’s transformation as “empowering,” but it should absolutely not be interpreted that way—instead, it implies that only by becoming a collaborator with evil does someone rise in an evil system.
Integral to it all is Alexandra Essoe, who perfectly expresses the vulnerability inherent in Sarah’s weak-willed pursuit of success and fame. It’s a stunning, nuanced performance that grapples with the frailty of Sarah’s sense of identity and self-worth, eliciting sympathy, and then pity, and then revulsion as she steadily embraces the worst aspects of her world, stripped of any earnestness that might still have existed within her. Presumably, it’s a performance that also impressed horror luminary Mike Flanagan, who went on to cast Essoe in a pitch-perfect rendition of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance in 2019’s Doctor Sleep, and recently in his Netflix hit Midnight Mass. In a film full of more labored imitations, Essoe’s effortless assumption of the character speaks to the same depth of talent on display in Starry Eyes.
This is a film that takes you on a journey with its protagonist, and it’s not going to be a pleasant trip. Starry Eyes is not a horror flick one recommends to friends for casual, low-stakes entertainment, but it is an impeccably crafted examination of how “good people” are all too often willing to compromise their ideals, and their humanity itself, in order to ascend. Would you be willing to do the same? And do you really believe yourself, when you say “no”?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.