Alex Essoe stars in STARRY EYES.

Starry Eyes

United States. Directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer, 2014. Starring Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan. 95 minutes.

Hollywood is the ultimate horror-movie town. It’s got a sinister history, is populated with low-lifes, creeps and weirdoes of every stripe, and is full to overflowing with metaphor. Already this year we’ve seen David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, which envisioned Hollywood as a ghost town. But there’s more than one way to skin a starlet, and Cronenberg’s influence is evident in Starry Eyes, which marries a classic tale of greed and ambition with the new “vaginal” style of body-horror à la Contracted and Thanatomorphose.

Alexandra Essoe stars as Sarah, who waits tables at a fictional Hooters-style T&A diner while plugging away at auditions and casting-calls. Opportunity comes calling in the form of a once-moribund horror studio who wants her to star in their latest project, Silver Scream. The catch is, she might have to suck the gnarly cock of Satan to get the role–and for once, that’s not a metaphor.

Written and directed by the team of Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes possesses a delightfully biting satirical sensibility. They haven’t got any particularly fresh ideas about how Hollywood chews up and spits out its promising young talent, but they couch what they do have in sharp wit and observation. While their sympathies clearly lie with Sarah’s peer group, a gaggle of indie hipster filmmakers (one of whom literally lives out of his car), nobody escapes the filmmakers’ rapier wit.

As such, Starry Eyes is more of an actor’s showcase than other films of such ilk, and it boasts numerous memorable performances. The character of Sarah is a bit on the bland side, but that goes with the territory, and Essoe’s fresh-faced, girl-next-door beauty makes up for it. But the supporting roles are where it’s at: Noah Segan (DeadgirlBrick) as Danny, an indie auteur who wants Sarah for her passion project; Pat Healy (ComplianceCheap Thrills) as Sarah’s boss at the diner; and Louis Dezseran, who steals the show with his clipped, genteel delivery as the sinister producer of Silver Scream.

Things go off the rails a bit in the film’s third act, where the film’s satire turns to horror and its moral dilemma becomes visceral. The metaphor becomes a bit too pointed, and Sarah undergoes a transformation that Essoe can’t quite pull off. The graphic violence, while well-done, seems a bit too gratuitous considering the overall context of the production. I’m not entirely sure how events follow each other in a couple of scenes. However, Kolsch and Widmyer’s self-consciously “retro” visual sense serves the film best during these late phases; my favorite scene, a procession of demon-worshipers performing a dark ritual in the Hollywood hills, generates both humor and unease in the best tradition of Rosemary’s Baby.

Bottom line, Starry Eyes is an entertaining Satanic show-biz satire marked by a pointed script, fine performances and memorable (if incongruous) gore.

Starry Eyes poster

Pat Healy, David Koechner and Ethan Embry star in CHEAP THRILLS.

Cheap Thrills

United States. Directed by E.L. Katz, 2013. Starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton. 88 minutes.

Let’s not mince words here: the global economic downturn sucks ass. The modern aristocracy–the ultra-wealthy, the 1% of the 1%–uses every means at its disposal to put as much financial distance between itself and the great unwashed as possible. Unemployment remains high, and those who do have jobs find themselves overworked and underpaid, the cost of living exceeding the value of their paychecks. More and more, members of the working class find themselves resorting to desperate measures to make ends meet.

That’s right, I think I do detect a faint whiff of social commentary coming from Cheap Thrills.

Pat Healy stars as Craig Daniels, a once-aspiring writer who gave up his dream in favor of an actual paying job at a mechanic’s shop. Then he finds himself a victim of what Corporate America euphemistically calls a “RIF” (reduction-in-force) and has no way to support his equally unemployed wife and infant child.

That’s when he runs into his childhood friend Vince (Ethan Embry), who’s turned to crime to make a living, and a pair of happy-go-lucky newlyweds Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). The later two are rich and looking for a good time. What’s their idea of a good time? Paying Colin and Vince increasingly large amounts of money to perform increasingly outrageous, insane, and/or dangerous acts. $50 to slap a stripper’s ass, $200 to punch a nightclub bouncer in the face. The catch is that Colin turns it into a competition, so that while both Craig and Vince can break into a neighbor’s house and take a dump on the floor, only one of them gets $1200.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, and thank God for that, because Craig and Vince’s loss is our gain: Cheap Thrills is as funny as it is cynical and vicious.

The screenplay, co-written by Trent Haaga (also responsible for ChopDeadgirl and many Troma productions) and David Chirchirillo, is a gem that succeeds on every possible level. Its surface goal is to amuse the audience with the sight of people doing stupid and disgusting things for money, and if that’s all you want, you’re not going to be disappointed. Shitting on the neighbor’s floor is only the tip of the iceberg.

But comedy often depends on pathos to give it depth, and Cheap Thrills sits atop a veritable motherlode of the stuff. It’s hard not to feel for Craig, who had so much going for him, but never realized his potential and ended up in this unfortunate situation. But you might also find yourself sympathizing with Vince, who might well have never had anything going for him, and even if he did, he was never able to find a legitimate vocation. If Mel Brooks had written this movie, he might have said, “Tragedy is when you lose your job; comedy is when you haggle the price to cut off your own pinkie finger.”

The characterization works just as well for Colin, the film’s nominal villain. He’s got just about every possible material possession money can buy, and he can easily acquire those he doesn’t have. But where does he go from there? Paying people to humiliate themselves for his and his wife’s entertainment is as good a start as any.

Violet gets the least development of the four main characters but that actually works in her favor. She’s quiet, for the most part, content to observe the circus instead of becoming a direct participant (except for a couple of particularly powerful scene). She acts the part of the vapid and bored Real Trophy Housewife, letting Colin get all the attention while their marks underestimate her.

So, yes, we’ve got a crackerjack script here. That doesn’t mean anything if the cast doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull it off, and do they? Boy howdy!

Healy’s performance is a complete 180° from his turn as the bad guy in Compliance, but his unassuming and slightly nerdy demeanor pays off handsomely in both roles. He’s perfect as the film’s hapless Everyman, a guy who’s desperate to take care of his family–and who among us can’t relate to him? Embry similarly puts in a strong performance as Vince, a guy who’s more than happy to buy you a beer or a line of coke, but will also fuck your shit up if you mess with him. Paxton’s waifish Violet is a nearly spectral presence, blending into the scenery as much as a woman as gorgeous as she is possibly can, and ensuring that you rarely notice her when she doesn’t want to be noticed.

But Koechner steals the entire show in a performance that I can call “Oscar-worthy” without any sense of hyperbole or irony. He’s been a reliable supporting player for years, usually in projects far beneath his considerable talent. (A Haunted House, anyone?) Here, the material gives him a chance to shine and he rises to the challenge with gusto. His interpretation of Colin is the film’s lynchpin: a villain so open and friendly and charismatic that he’s impossible to hate, a guy who’s got money falling out of every orifice yet puts on the show of being the regular guy so well that you sometimes forget he’s richer than Mitt Romney.

With everybody writing and acting all over the place, it’s easy to overlook first-timer E.L. Katz’s direction. His style may not be particularly showy, but it’s very subtle, with some memorable compositions (anything involving Koechner and a steam iron, as seen above). The editing–which is as crucial to a comedy film than any one-liner or funny-man performance–is exceptionally tight, with not a frame going to waste. (Also, loved the tip of the hat to Funny Games at the end!)

The best comedy–at least to me–doesn’t just make us laugh. It makes us uncomfortable, it holds a mirror up to us and points out the things we’d prefer to ignore. Cheap Thrills does all this, and more–and it never forgets to entertain.

Cheap Thrills poster

Dreama Walker stars in COMPLIANCE

Compliance

United States. Directed by Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ann Dowd. 89 minutes.

Another stressful Friday at a ChickWich franchise in Ohio. Last night, an employee left a freezer door ajar before closing up; over a thousand dollars’ worth of food spoiled. Manager Sandra Fromme (Ann Dowd) managed to wrangle an emergency shipment from the warehouse to replace some of it, but bacon remains in short supply. If that’s not bad enough, regional HQ is sending a “secret shopper” to the restaurant tonight, to evaluate the crew’s service. Sandra doesn’t need any more hassles.

She gets one anyway, in the form of a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who tells her he has an irate customer with him and Sandra’s regional manager on the other line. The customer claims to be the victim of a theft committed at the restaurant an hour earlier by one of the counter jockeys, a blonde girl, about 19 years of age. The police aren’t currently able to spare any uniforms to investigate yet, so Daniels asks Sandra for her help, and tells her that the regional manager authorizes her to assist him in whatever way he needs.

Daniels’s description matches Becky (Dreama Walker), one of Sandra’s least favorite crew members, so she calls her into the office for a chat. Becky, of course, denies the theft. Daniels doesn’t believe her, and tells Sandra she needs to search the young woman. She doesn’t have the money on her.

Nobody ever doubts the officers’s story. Nobody considers the possibility that no theft ever occurred, and that “Officer Daniels” mightn’t be a cop at all. Nobody questions him when he instructs them to strip-search Becky, or to treat her in a more extreme manner. They just assume he is who he says he is, and comply with his instructions, even when they cross the line to sexual harassment and beyond.

Before the night is over, trust will be shattered, careers will be destroyed, and lives will be ruined…all because of a middle-aged man with a prepaid cell phone and a few calling cards, claiming to be a policeman.

Compliance begins with the boilerplate disclaimer that it’s based on a true story. For once, that’s not bullshit: writer/director Craig Zobel changed the names of people, places and companies, but his screenplay matches, plot point for plot point, an incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in April of 2004.

Turns out that disclaimer is pretty much crucial, because it makes a point. I’m not sure how well Contrivance would work if it were pure fiction instead of merely fictionalized. I don’t think it’s accurate to call these events “unbelievable”; in fact, they’re all too believable, because it’s easy to be blasé and cynical about human gullibility/stupidity/herd mentality/moral decay/whatever you want to call it. But knowing that these things actually happened makes it harder to write these events off.

Zobel never bothers to concretely answer the question “How the fuck could this possibly happen?” But he gives several hints, and the most obvious one comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, as “Officer Daniels” talks Sandra’s tipsy fiancée Van through the finer points of keeping a naked 19-year-old girl under control. Van needs to make Becky call him “sir,” he needs to spank her like he’s her daddy when she “mouths off” to Sandra.

He needs to assert authority over her, and to trigger her programming to submit. Just like Daniels does whenever he tells someone, “You need to calm down, and you really should call me ‘officer.’ Or ‘sir.’” Do we all have this programming? Are we all that different from Sandra, Van and the rest of the crew?

At this point, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Compliance is a horror movie, and not one of the fun ones, either. It’s one of the ones that makes you feel numb or hollow inside at the end, and you need a good cry or maybe a shower. Just with emotional violence instead of physical.

And Zobel’s devotion to the actual sequence of events makes the film harder to watch. Modern horror and thriller films tend to utilize a “roller-coaster” structure, a cascading sequence of events to build tension and release tension. Compliance, on the other hand, is all tension. Occasionally the action (inasmuch as you can call a bunch of people talking on the phone with each other “action”) breaks for a minute or two, but not very often, but by the time the climax hits, you’re going to want to run screaming from the room.

This is all well and good, but it is the sort of film that needs a good cast to sell it and it’s got one. Dreama Walker puts in an admirably brave performance as Becky, Pat Healy’s “Officer Daniels” commands the entire film (pun intended), but it’s Ann Dowd as Sandra who has the toughest role: you have to see her as an ordinary, average Everywoman who commits a series of increasingly horrifying acts simply because a man she believes to be an officer of the law tells her they’re the right things to do.

Compliance isn’t a work of entertainment. It will make you uncomfortable and it will make you think about things you’d rather not think about; it might even force you to face an ugly truth about yourself. It is art.

Compliance poster