Saturday, February 7, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: STARRY EYES (2014); EXISTS (2014); and HORNS (2014)

(US/Belgium - 2014)

In horror circles, STARRY EYES was hailed as an instant cult classic almost immediately after it played the festival circuit and hit the VOD rounds last fall. I always get a little skeptical when today's horror fans latch on to something, because that's when you get conned by things like The Legend of Ti West and the absurd notion that THE INNKEEPERS is a good movie, or that Alexandre Aja's PIRANHA is "like, totally old-school exploitation!" Mind you, there's a great idea at the heart of STARRY EYES, and there's some cutting observations about the culture of Hollywood, the pretentiousness and the catty one-upmanship and those would-be stars working mundane day jobs when they aren't trying to catch a break at an audition. It also sports a supporting cast filled with minor cult figures like SOMEONE'S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR and DEADGIRL's Noah Segan, RED, WHITE & BLUE stars Amanda Fuller and Marc Senter, COMPLIANCE prank caller Pat Healy, and a KISS Kameo by professional wealthy offspring Nick Simmons.  But in its execution, STARRY EYES is impossibly heavy-handed, making its points in the most suffocatingly ham-fisted and overly literal ways imaginable, and it just gets dumb and dumber as it goes along. In an undeniably strong and demanding performance that hints at deeper issues haunting the character, Alexandra Essoe is Sarah Walker, a Big Taters waitress struggling to make it as an actress. She gets an audition for a horror film called THE SILVER SCREAM, produced by Astraeus Pictures, a once-notable studio now sort-of on the skids. It's an unusual audition held by a pair of eccentrics, but she gets a callback that consists of a lot of flash photos in a dark room. She's then called to meet with the producer (Louis Dezseran), an aging Roger Corman-type who unsubtly tries to get her on the casting couch. Initially rejecting but having a change of heart after she quits her job and sees her roommates and friends going nowhere in their own acting and filmmaking pursuits, she caves to the producer's demands that she "show" how dedicated she is and that she make the appropriate "sacrifice."

Of course, there's something more sinister afoot, as the writing/directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have shown the producer with a pentagram burned into his hand and his assistant (Maria Olsen, fast becoming the Michael Berryman of today's DIY hipster horror scene) wearing a pentagram necklace. Yes, they're all Satanists, and their cult is fame, the central conceit of STARRY EYES being a literal death and rebirth as your old self dies--the sacrifice--and a star is born. After fellating the producer, Sarah's body starts breaking down in Cronenbergian fashion, and also in ways very similar to the awful slut-shaming body-horror film CONTRACTED. There's a cynical message here that all Hollywood success stories are rooted in evil, soulless vanity, but that shouldn't surprise anyone after ALL ABOUT EVE. By the time Sarah vomits maggots and starts offing her friends in ways that will even have the most seen-it-all gorehounds flinching, the filmmakers have her literally stabbing one in the back in order to make sure you're getting the message that she's not the same old Sarah. It's all rather obvious and while Kolsch and Widmyer take the L.A. scenester-types to task early on, the notion of "breaking through the gate" and achieving fame and fortune by selling your soul to Satan isn't exactly a high concept if you've ever heard of Faust. This has its moments, augmented by a very John Carpenter-esque synth score by Jonathan Snipes, but I'm really at a loss as to what movie everyone saw when they got on the STARRY EYES love train and declared it a modern horror classic. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US - 2014)

After co-directing the 1999 phenomenon THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Eduardo Sanchez has stayed busy with DTV or limited theatrical release horror titles like ALTERED (2006), SEVENTH MOON (2009), and the critically-acclaimed LOVELY MOLLY (2012). Sanchez has never had the accolades nor the success that BLAIR WITCH brought him, so now, 15 years later, he's back sucking from the faux-doc/found footage teet with EXISTS, just as the subgenre he helped make mainstream is falling out of favor with fans. Obviously, Sanchez is an old pro at this kind of thing, and EXISTS has a handful of well-done set pieces, but you have to wade through an hour of dudebro dialogue, idiotic characters, several long sequences in night-vision or almost total darkness, and plenty of time to ponder the age-old question in this type of horror film: why are you still filming? Five dumbasses (two couples and the obligatory comic-relief fifth wheel who does all the filming) head to a remote cabin in the woods (owned by the uncle of two of the dudes, who actually are bros) for a weekend of beer, weed, and doing generally EXTREME! shit, all to be documented in its entirety on their GoPro cameras. Their SUV hits something, and only a blurred figure is seen on the playback, but once they're at the cabin, a howling in the woods convinces the goof of the group (Chris Osborn) that they're dealing with Bigfoot. Even if EXISTS wasn't rendered moot arriving so soon after Bobcat Goldthwait's Bigfoot-themed WILLOW CREEK, one of the better recent found-footage offerings, it can't overcome a deadly first half with some of the most irritating characters the subgenre has ever offered. Most of the dialogue is along the lines of "What the fuck was that, bro?" or "What the fuck's goin' on here, bro," and "You killed my friend, motherfucker!" as one fires a shotgun blindly in the dark, which of course attracts the creature and promptly gets the trigger-happy bro's head bashed in. To his credit, Sanchez does get some serious momentum going as the five get whittled down to three and they try to venture through the woods to find the highway. Naturally, one's surefire shortcut results in them getting lost, but Sanchez knows how to do this right. He gets that climactic BLAIR WITCH vibe going in the last 20 or so minutes with the sprinting creature's relentless pursuit (one sudden appearance through a cloud of fireworks smoke is a good example of a jump scare done right), but it's still not enough to counter the damage caused by such a shitty script, penned by Sanchez's usual post-BLAIR WITCH writing partner Jamie Nash. It's maybe worth a Netflix stream on a really slow night if you're still a found-footage completist, but in returning to the woods to recapture some of his dwindling mojo, Sanchez remains doomed to spend the rest of his career in BLAIR WITCH's shadow. (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2014)

Anything would be a step up for French horror director Alexandre Aja after his smug and miserable fakesploitation 2010 remake of PIRANHA, and while it's not always successful, HORNS is certainly ambitious. Based on Joe Hill's novel, the very busy HORNS crams a lot of story into two hours and even though plot points are rushed through or not fully fleshed-out, it still feels overlong, like it either needed to lose 20 or so minutes or just be extended to a cable miniseries. Letting the story breathe might've done a lot to smooth over the rough tonal shifts as HORNS careens from love story to murder mystery to dark satire to CGI-heavy supernatural horror in ways that probably read a lot better on the page than they play on the screen. That doesn't mean there aren't pleasures to be had in HORNS, which has its moments before collapsing into contrivance, convenience, and stupidity in its third act. Radio station DJ Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is besieged by media and outraged citizens of his small town when his longtime girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) is found brutally murdered in the woods. Nobody believes he's innocent except his older brother Terry (Joe Anderson) and his lawyer best friend Lee (Max Minghella). The town thinks Ig is the devil, and it doesn't help his case that he sprouts a pair of horns out of his forehead overnight--horns that not everyone can see, but when they do, they feel compelled to confess their deepest secrets and their most bluntly honest thoughts. It's this portion of HORNS that works best, as Aja wrings much dark humor out of a mom openly admitting she hates her screaming child, a bartender crowing about his dogfighting ring and how his dream is to torch his bar and collect the insurance money, or Ig being hassled by two bullying cops who casually admit they'd rather be sucking each other off. It also generates some well-handled drama as Ig's mom (Kathleen Quinlan) and dad (James Remar) admit they think he's guilty and would rather never see him again ("I don't want you to be my son anymore, sweetheart," his mother explains). People of genuinely good character--like Lee and Merrin's grieving father (David Morse)--can't see the horns, and over time, Ig learns to use their power to his advantage, with a highlight being one hilarious sequence where he's followed by a small army of reporters and uses the horns to convince them to beat the living shit out of one another, with the winner getting an exclusive, tell-all interview (there's a great callback to this scene much later, as reporters are all outside a courthouse with cuts, bruises, and bandages). Flashbacks to their childhood fill in the blanks of how Ig and Merrin got together, the effect it had on Ig's relationship with his buddies, and what exactly led to his being accused of her murder.

Admirably gory and going all-in with hard-R glee, HORNS works best in its periodic black comedy phases. No matter how silly a film's premise, it can always work if it follows its own rules, which HORNS doesn't always do. The more it goes on, the more uneven it becomes, as Aja and screenwriter Keith Bunin (the HBO series IN TREATMENT) juggle elements of DONNIE DARKO, TWIN PEAKS, HELLBOY, GHOST RIDER, early Peter Jackson splatter comedy and, in a possible shout-out to Joe Hill's dad Stephen King, STAND BY ME and THE DEAD ZONE until they just drop the balls and let them scatter. It's entirely too easy to figure out who the real killer is and once it's revealed, there's still over 40 minutes to go as Aja embarks on a Peter Jackson climax spree and can't seem to decide where the movie should end. Even with all the plot, it still loses track of several major characters (Kelli Garner as the no-self-esteem, self-described "town whore" who's carried a torch for Ig since childhood, seems especially shortchanged), and Merrin's dad's eventual sympathizing with Ig feels rushed and unconvincing. It's definitely worth seeing once, as Radcliffe is quite good and the film is really firing on all cylinders when it's being funny--Heather Graham has a great bit as a diner waitress giving false info about Ig to the police in the hopes that it makes her the star witness at the eventual trial ("I'm gonna release my own sex tape and have a reality show and be on the cover of Us Magazine!" she squeals with wild-eyed glee)--but the more it goes on, the more of a unwieldy, undisciplined mess it becomes. (R, 120 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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