Permanent Midnight: Horror’s Most Fearless Performance of the Year Is Just Carrying on Tradition

The indie occult flick "Starry Eyes" shares some truly disturbing DNA with Andrzej Żuławski's "Possession."

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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.

Recall any old girlfriend's most destructive outbursts over, say, seeing another girl's name/number in your SMS text history. In other words, think back to the time when an ex made Kelis' "Caught Out There" sound like a Taylor Swift song. Has the PTSD kicked in yet? Good, but imagine if she'd also been caught in the blast of five gamma rays. Now you know what to expect in both Starry Eyes, this week's featured new release, and Possession, an oldie but thematically related goodie.

Written and directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes is a Tinseltown-set woman-in-trouble film that brings occultism and slasher movie brutality to a story that's not unlike David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. At its center is Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe), a ticking time bomb with extreme female neuroses; she's a little bit Black Swan's Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and a little bit Repulsion's Carol (Catherine Deneuve).

More so than those two characters, though, Sarah is a direct descendant of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 cult classic Possession, the woman-on-the-edge of which is Anna, played with breathtaking ferocity by the great Isabelle Adjani. Kolsch and Widmyer are two of its biggest fans. As part of their Starry Eyes Los Angeles premiere, held at Beyond Fest in late September, the co-directors also presented a screening of Possession, which they cite as their film's biggest inspiration.

The most overt connection between Starry Eyes and Possession lies within the latter's most infamous sequence. As a whole, Żuławski's unclassifiable film is about a horrific divorce that assaults your senses with shouting matches, people mutilating their own bodies, bizarre doppelgängers, a horny octopus (seriously), and a performance by Isabelle Adjani that's almost inhuman. The French actress basically leaves our planet during the aforementioned sequence that lives in infamy—known as "the subway scene," it's an epic wig-out during which Adjani's Carol hysterically gives birth to a slithery creature in a puddle of milky ooze. Before that, she laughs, howls, contorts her body, flails around, and, sans any stunt double for Adjani, smacks her head against a concrete wall.

The three-minute scene is, to put it lightly, fucking mental:


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In Starry Eyes, Sarah is a struggling, upstart actress living in Los Angeles who pays her rent by working a dead-end job as a fast food waitress at Big Taters. The restaurant's grimy bathroom is where we first see Alexandra Essoe go full Adjani. Sarah has one violently masochistic habit: in hard-to-watch manifestations of her anger and disappointment, the first of which takes place in a Big Taters' stall, Sarah yanks her own hair out. She's been doing it since she was a little girl—it's how Sarah copes with disappointment, or sadness, or whatever else fuels her inner depression. Following one failed audition after another, Sarah's unhappiness manifests itself in her hands, the tools she uses to rip strands of hair clean off of her scalp. Each tug is accentuated by booms on the soundtrack. Essoe's fits of self-punishment function as bite-size variations of that Possession freak-out.

Straddling the line between Hollywood satire and occultist nightmare, Starry Eyes has one clear villain: ambition. Sarah will do whatever it takes to become famous, and it's that insatiable desire that makes her do things she knows aren't right. As in, getting sexual with the slimy elder producer of The Silver Scream, a cheap-o horror film being made by Astraeus Pictures, a once-prominent brand that's become a Hollywood punch line. Astraeus is also, as Sarah learns, run by a malevolent cult seeking wannabe starlets to corrupt. But Sarah latches onto the interest shown by The Silver Scream's two eccentric casting directors (Maria Olsen, Marc Senter), two humorless sadists who respond to how Sarah hurts herself, make her disrobe, and exploit her insecurity to get her to do the hair-removal act in front of them.

Instead of landing her the Silver Scream gig, though, Sarah's humiliation gets her a callback for a second audition, one that devolves into a phantasmagoric light show. Colors weave; a demon's face flashes; Sarah loses her inhibitions in glimpses of carnal release. Kolsch and Widmyer enhance the disorienting scene with a stroboscopic force that'd make Irreversible and Enter the Void director Gaspar Noé smile. At a recent Starry Eyes screening in LA, one audience member vomited during the sequence, while it forced another viewer to run out of a Lincoln Center theater in New York City two weeks ago.


Throughout Starry Eyes, composer Jonathan Snipes' score is pure '80s retro, tapping into the same throwback aesthetic as Drive and last year's Maniac remake but with an edgier bend. Starry Eyes thrives on heavily stylized visuals and sounds, yet Alexandra Essoe's performance is ever-present. To their massive credit, Kolsch and Widmyer have written a character who's not aloof to what's happening around her—she's just incapable of resisting the dark side. It all rests on Essoe to sell every moment; fortunately, she's a revelation.

Starry Eyes' third act erupts into a barrage of murder, bloodshed, and ritualistic cultism. Kolsch and Widmyer deserve serious respect for intelligently merging the satirical black comedy of Hollywood failure with Cronenberg-like body horror and occasional ultra-violence. Once she completely succumbs to the Hollywood cult's career-making dark arts, Sarah treats her circle of friends—the supportive ones as well as fellow aspiring actress and snarky hater Erin (Fabianne Therese)—to a homicidal rampage not for the weak-stomached. In the film's supreme moment of gore, Sarah grabs a dumbbell, straddles a friend who's asleep in bed, and, just as the unlucky girl wakes up, bashes her skull in a good seven or eight times with the free weight. You see every bit of extreme contact. It's another scene for Gaspar Noé, who once staged a man getting his cranium mushed into a pâté by a fire extinguisher, to applaud.

Money-shots like that give Starry Eyes its Fangoria street cred, but in the end Alexandra Essoe is the main reason why the film hits so hard. All the pulverized heads in the world can't compete against Essoe's Sarah punishing herself by painfully uprooting all of those follicles. Those scenes will stick with you. They'll replay in your head just as much as this will now:


[GIF via Coub]

Starry Eyes opens in limited theaters and on digital VOD today, via Dark Sky Films. More info can be found on the film's official site.

*** NOTE: If you're looking for more to read on horror movies about women on the edge, film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse's House of Psychotic Women is an excellent resource.

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