Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Netflix Junk – Starry Eyes and The Pact

Starry ISIS

  • Starring and directed by some people
  • Fear Factor: Goes from creepy to just sickening in 3.5
  • All of them, but mostly 7th and 9th circle

Starry Eyes tells the story of an ambitious, disgruntled wannabe actress who quits her demeaning day job and sells her soul and dignity to a sleazy, obviously ill-intentioned producer to star in a cheap horror movie called “The Silver Scream”.  In other words, Starry Eyes tells the story of the lead actress in the movie Starry Eyes.  The parallel becomes even more apparent when one reads the behind-the-scenes tidbits and learns that the actress Sarah actually went the full distance and stuffed her mouth full of real bugs for a scene, just as the movie character Sarah went all the way and stuffed her mouth full of… the producer in order to get the “part”.  But let’s focus on the storytelling or lack thereof.

The movie’s pretty interesting for about the first fifty minutes when we don’t know exactly what the Astraeus Studio is seeking from a leading lady and Sarah is wavering between shooting a small film with her friends or signing onto a mainstream release that will play in theaters everywhere.  There’s a strong mystery surrounding the auditioning process that enables one to overlook the mostly crappy acting and writing, and I appreciated that the ensuing horror was based on the weighted decisions of a protagonist who has the ability to choose between a humble life and potential stardom, the devil she knows and the devil she doesn’t.  A lot of these slasher, satanic cult, mythical monster, whatever-the-heck-Starry Eyes-is movies mistakenly revolve around a series of preordained disasters that befall characters who are trapped in an enclosed environment and can’t do anything to avert their gruesome ends, so it was reassuring for a short while to see a movie where the characters have a semblance of control over their destiny.  Just so, I found it all the more disappointing that the protagonist makes the phone-call-of-no-return just because she’s high from a pill that her guy friend gave her earlier with no sinister implications suggested by the direction or acting.  Would Ripley’s heroic return to rescue Newt from the Alien Queen have nearly the same dramatic effect if she was stoned at the time, couldn’t find her way back to the shuttle, and just stumbled into the egg room by happenstance?  What if The Shining was just a movie about Jack Torrance having a wee bit too much to drink and trashing the Overlook Hotel in his inebriated rage?

But the leading lady takes the pill and heads back to the blatantly sinister producer to show him that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, or something.  Then she wakes up in bed after a fade-to-black and goes to work looking absolutely sickly.  Soon she’s fired from her food service job after drooling on someone’s French fries and slapping her boss, who already fired and re-hired her once for no reason except that this scene can take place, which is just one example of the almost thoughtless pacing behind the film.  The lascivious Tater’s restaurant manager, who admits he’s running a “cheesy”, Hooters-like establishment with its Tater’s Girls, Tater-tots, and other banal expressions but prides himself on giving respectable employment to those who have no other options, never shows up again even though he’s the most engaging, multi-dimensional character and we know that Sarah loathes him with a passion.

Instead of going back to the restaurant or stalking her boss to his house to murder him, Sarah inexplicably elects to go a killing spree against her own friends, who’ve shown nothing but care and support for her so far.  Think of the possibilities if the creators had taken this a more predictable and logical revenge tale route.  She could have slammed her leery, bossy employer’s head into the burger grill and said something like, “How do you like them taters?” or “See you later, tater gator.”  Why didn’t they let me write this film?  But that they didn’t do, and as a result of the script falling into the improper hands, the latter half devolves into increasingly gory, exploitative filth, to the point that even I as a fairly thick-skinned consumer of horror felt behooved to take a metaphorical shower and wash off the sludge that I’d just dumped all over my sensory organs.

Sarah’s rampage in the final act doesn’t even make sense half the time.  She picks up a knife, pulls a hoodie over her face, and ambushes her gal pal outside an apartment bathroom, but instead of killing her on the spot, she sulks rigidly in a corner and lets herself get sucked into a vicious catfight about sexual favors as a tool of career advancement.  When her friend moves to turn the lights on, Sarah panics because she looks like an emaciated vampire-zombie and somehow doesn’t want her ugliness exposed to the person she’s already resolved to kill.  Not realizing that she’s in a situation right out of a slasher movie, the other girl follows her first instinct to try assisting Sarah, and only after some back-and-forth screaming does the former Tater’s Girl decide to stab the person she was already stalking with malicious intent.  There’s blood everywhere and some of the neighboring flatmates have already witnessed her assault, so she has to quite literally smash their heads in to cover her trail.  Stabbing the girl she followed didn’t work the first time, so she tries that technique again and fails yet another time, leading her to finish the job with a plastic, blood-soaked bag of all things.  I don’t even want to talk about her roommate receiving the vomit-blood-kiss-of-death after Sarah earns her Satanist stripes and is reborn as a bald vampire monster thing.

I watched Starry Eyes on the recommendation of Red Letter Media’s Jay Bauman, who also pointed me, rightly so, towards such low-profile gems as Creep with Mark Duplass and Blue Ruin. This may be the last time I choose to subsidize a Netflix freebie* solely on the referral of Jay Bauman, because Starry Eyes is what Red Letter Media would otherwise call an abject piece of cinematic shlock.  Its latent, probably accidental theme of abandoning one’s moral integrity in pursuit of popularity and respect was accomplished much better and more artfully in The Lost Boys, a vastly more memorable and whimsical movie that meshed a then-novel depiction of cool, leather-clad vampires with the more traditional vampire mythology rooted in pure evil.  The Lost Boys isn’t a great film by any measure and it has no shortage of gory violence in its conclusion, but at least director Joel Schumacher thought of creative, funny ways to implement the bloody stuff, shooting a vampire’s shredded body matter out of an exploding toilet in one of the movie’s finer moments.

Starry Eyes does not have an exploding toilet gag.  Starry Eyes has nothing but a barbell bashing someone’s head to a bloody pulp, a respite you may want to take yourself after watching the whole thing.

The Wolf Pact
  • Starring Caity Lotz and a less intimidating War Boy
  • Directed by Nicholas McCarthy (director of The Pact – the short film)
  • Fear Factor: Stepping on a Lego brick
  • 7th Circle, I guess

The Pact is a movie that brings me little pleasure to review, as it doesn’t do anything extremely right or extremely wrong.  I did keep a running list of everything that bugged me about it, but after watching the abomination that is Starry Eyes, this just seems like a mediocre, merely passable haunted house movie.  The first third is all about characters walking around a suburban house at night, stepping on out-of-place objects, and saying, “Sh*t!”  The camera’s always positioned behind their heads, but the only times something scary shows up are when the shot cuts to another angle or rapidly pans to a shadowy figure with an accompanying BWWAAAA sound effect.  If you’re easily scared by sudden, loud noises, this is not the horror film for you, or maybe it is.  Even when something disturbing – a decapitated head lamp lurking in a corner of a room – is already quite visible in the frame, the editor chooses to throw a BWWAAHH in just because the protagonist turns around and sees it for the first time.  Regardless of that obnoxious habit, it’s largely a Don’t Open That Door kind of movie and it follows the subgenre playbook very loyally, but it’s not offensively bad.

The second third is about the protagonist looking for clues to the identity of the ghost by searching a web browser called “Global Maps”, visiting a missionary or some place that has pictures of the deceased, and in general looking at things and thinking out loud to connect the dots in the murder mystery.  This is without a doubt the weakest chapter of the film because showing characters looking at a computer screen and absorbing information from the internet isn’t a very compelling way to tell a story. Whether you give a crap about the backstory of the ghost is another question entirely; I did not.  To its credit, the film’s best scare involves a white-dressed woman in a photo on the aforementioned Global Maps, which changes subtly as the girl zooms in and pans around to study different details.

It’s only in the third act that things start to pick up.  Apparently a thin, mute, and shirtless serial killer has been living in a cramped compartment beneath the concealed room, subsisting on whatever he can scavenge from the home’s refrigerator at night and sitting on a bed and crying in his spare time.  It’s stupid, but our protagonist (Annie – I had to look up her name because I’m tired of calling her The Protagonist) is trapped in the haunted house and has to kill the killer before he kills her back, with aid from the spirit of the woman the killer formerly killed.  Both of them turn out to be really inefficient killers, Annie passing up half a dozen opportunities to shoot the man through peepholes in the room, the man tying her up in a closet and coming at her so slowly that she can make a sort of weapon out of a coat hanger and stab him in the leg.  One can’t deny it’s all incredibly stupid, but at least it’s somewhat suspenseful, and there’s not a ton of blood for its own sake as in Starry Eyes.

The Pact is exceedingly average, acceptably shot, and altogether skippable.  Setting the haunting in a single-story, claustrophobic household is a rather unique move, but at the same time it makes an already boring and cheap movie look even more low-budget and unambitious.  If you’re going to make a haunted house-murder mystery thriller hybrid, you could at least rent or build an interesting house in which to film it.

* Netflix is only really a freebie for college students surrounded by other gullible college students who pay good money for Netflix and let their friends use their accounts. If you’re not a college student, then you’re all out luck, or you would be if Netflix’s streaming selection didn’t suck.

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