“She had to leave / Los Angeles.” These words on American punk rock band X’s bleak, rampaging debut LP captured a moment in the counter-culture. The early 1980s marked a shift from the sun-baked, cocaine glamour of the Laurel Canyon troubadours to the disaffected urban ennui of their progeny. The baby boomers’ dominance in mainstream culture yielded a chasm for their children; a cultural rift in which the city’s Dionysian torrent became a void to tumble into. Starry Eyes (2014) is a new chapter in this narrative; a genre rendition of another generational shift in the rebel arts. A gory, Faustian tale of millennial creative anxiety; a snapshot of youth struggling to create in the post-crash sprawl.
The picture follows a group of young filmmakers, actors and writers striving to make a mark on the fringes of Hollywood. Sarah (Alex Essoe), an ambitious young ingénue yearning for fame, breaks rank to sell her soul to a shady, but big-gun, horror studio called Astraeus Pictures. Inevitably, the price of stardom is far steeper than she could have imagined. Sarah and her friends are the lost generation of the recent global recession, labouring against insurmountable odds to leave a mark on the arts world just as it’s closing in on itself. Starry Eyes is concerned with the balance between the urge to create and anxiety inherent in that act. The optimism of youth is pitted against the rotting pessimism of experience. Sarah could work on her friends’ projects and be a part of a new DIY movement, but she chooses the studio.
Horror has always been a channel for its artists’ neuroses and, for the young mumblegore auteurs of the 2010s, leaving their creatively rewarding repertory companies for more lucrative mid-budget fare is clearly a source of conflict. The promising figures of the genre – from Adam Wingard to Ti West – already appear to have made the jump, but at what cost? Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch mine the anxiety for all its worth, but they place it in the context of the grand tradition of Hollywood Faustian pacts. Astraeus Pictures looks like something out of Tinseltown legend; oak doors, stucco interiors and velvet curtains, all bathed in a deep, golden glow. The times change, but the star machine is the same. The system is the ghost in its own story; its mythology both seduces and destroys. Starry Eyes tackles the tension between these worlds with bloody aplomb. A new scream queen is born with Alex Essoe; reminiscent of a young Jessica Harper, she is a firestarter. In an early scene in which an audition is tantamount to primal scream therapy, we see the trajectory of the film flicker before us in a split second as we witness her shift from innocent beauty to murderous savant. She is the pulse behind the starry eyes.