Before we begin, an ironic note — I’m one of those people who never reads movie reviews until after they see the movies. Sometimes I’ll check out my favorite reviewers to see if they liked a particular film or not, usually just reading the opening line or noting the star rating at the end.
After I see the movies, I then go back to read the reviews.
I love movies, and I like to be surprised. I also like to judge for myself. On the other hand, I hate wasting money on dreck.
So here I am, writing about two recent films (both released within the last year) that you probably missed unless you were at a film festival where they were screened before going to home video. Each of the films was independently produced with a minimal budget and mostly unknown casts. Each is full of delights and surprises (some pleasant, others unsettling). Both are horror films, but not the normal garden variety, and both are better than most such films showing at the multiplex.
I’ll try to give away as little as possible.
Starry Eyes received limited release last November before quickly reaching a wider audience (including me) on home video. Shot in just 18 days, the movie was written and directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, their second feature-length film after Absence (2009). Scarcely anyone saw that first film, but Kolsch and Widmyer are on the radar now, thanks to Starry Eyes. Currently in production, their new film Holidays is labeled a horror/comedy, with Kevin Smith and Seth Green in the starring roles. Kolsch and Widmyer obviously have more money to play with.
Starry Eyes is about Sarah (Alex Essoe, in a fearless performance), a young woman trying to make it into the movies. She is not alone. Her friends and roommate all have the same goal, but none is as obsessed as Sarah. An unexpected audition provides the break she’s been waiting for, though the role itself is something she could never have imagined.
Imagine A Star Is Born meets The Devil’s Advocate, and you might have some idea of where Starry Eyes is going. On the way, the filmmakers invert many of the familiar horror tropes, transforming Sarah to a star beyond her wildest imagination in this grisly valentine to the industry.
After doing the festival route in 2014 with some success, Spring earned a limited theatrical release before surfacing quickly on home video. Even more unusual and less predictable than Starry Eyes, this movie has inevitably drawn comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. After all, a major portion of the film is about two young people strolling around various sites in a beautiful European setting, talking and falling in love – only one of them is aware of the monster waiting in the wings.
Written by Justin Benson and co-directed by him and cinematographer Aaron Moorhead, Spring is one of the most visually striking genre films in recent years. In addition to the lovely views and the likable co-stars (Lou Taylor Pucci as Evan and the striking Nadia Hilker as Louise), the plot at first seems to meander from urban realism to overseas romance before revealing its roots in horror, but of an even less familiar type than in Starry Eyes. And everything has its purpose.
Creative, original, and technically polished, Starry Eyes and Spring both demonstrate the strengths of the better independent films: how less (budget) can sometimes equal more (quality) – even in horror.