Tinseltown Gothic Double-Bill: The Neon Demon/Starry Eyes

The Neon Demon (France/Denmark/US 2016)

D/St: Nicolas Winding Refn. S: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham. P: Lene Borglum, Nicolas Winding Refn. Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. DVD/Blu-ray dist: Icon (UK), Broad Green Pictures (US).


A genuine oddity, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) starts off as an icily-detached satire of the modelling industry before finally jumping the rails to become an ultra-chic iteration of the Erzsebet Bathory legend. It belongs to the same “Tinseltown Gothic” sub-genre as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Kevin Kölsch/Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014), in which naïve dreams of stardom turn to grisly nightmare. 16-year-old wannabe supermodel Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with zero experience, but finds herself on the fast-track to success when industry professionals are wowed by her childlike purity. At the same time, her meteoric rise attracts bitter envy from her hard-eyed, hardbodied catwalk rivals; while equally mesmerised by Jesse’s beauty, they see in it, too, a means to prolong their own careers… But is Jesse really the doe-eyed innocent she appears? The discovery of a wild puma trapped in her motel room suggests otherwise. Is she a corrupted virgin, a predatory schemer, or the earthly incarnation of a lunar goddess? Only Refn and his co-writers (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) know for sure. Just when you think the film will play out entirely in impeccably-composed, static medium-shots of nothing really happening, Refn abruptly tires of restraint and treats the viewer, in rapid succession, to explicit scenes of lesbian necrophilia (yes, you read that right), eyeball-regurgitation and self-disembowelment. Take THAT, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and George at Asda!

It’s impossible to imagine the film without its thunderous techno score by Cliff Martinez, a broad-spectrum fusion of Refn’s most beloved musical influences, from Kraftwerk to Goblin and Eurodisco. As the few positive notices have remarked, The Neon Demon is less a fully-rounded film narrative than an eyeball-and- eardrum-popping Movie Experience, a tightly-controlled exercise in sensory overload. Refn’s style is a strangely endearing blend of Kubrickian austerity and Argentovian exuberance: lone figures are stranded in blinding-white studio voids, or posed like statuary against Hollywood skies of infinite blue; auditioning models in Agent Provocateur pants and Jimmy Choos sit around in chairs like identical mannequins, waiting to be called; backgrounds pulse with unnervingly vivid coloured gel lighting effects, while shrieking women run past with butcher knives. The film reaches its apex of audiovisual stylisation in Jesse’s first fashion-show catwalk, which seems to take place either on some bizarre astral plane (somewhat reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s jet-black limbo in Under the Skin) or inside the model’s own subjective consciousness. In a sparkling black gown she drifts down a dark corridor, occasionally pausing to kiss her own reflection, drawn on by a glowing occult symbol which appears in the distance (a recurring motif of inverted neon triangles). Throughout the film, Refn appears to be asking us to forget what the scenes “really mean” – probably nothing – and concentrate instead on how they make us feel. The stately pace and chilly detachment ultimately prevent The Neon Demon from working as a truly exciting son-et-lumière assault, a la Suspiria, but it remains an undeniably beautiful aesthetic experiment. Refn dearly wants to be considered an Auteur – just check out how often his “NWR” imprimatur appears on the film – and, despite all its clichéd plotting and empty pretension, The Neon Demon may actually be the film that earns him that title.


Starry Eyes (US 2014)

D/S: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer. P: Travis Stevens. Cast: Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabianne Therese, Shane Coffey, Pat Healy. Dist: Metrodome (UK DVD), MPI Home Video (US DVD/Blu-ray).


Classy Kickstarter-funded low-budget horror flick with a solid cast of unknowns and some pleasingly Lovecraftian twists. Written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, it’s a disturbing slow-burn tale of Hollywood ambition and Satanic conspiracy, with a naïve young waitress and wannabe actress (Alex Essoe) getting far more than she bargained for after attending an oddball audition for a new horror pic (from the ominously-named Astraeus Pictures). The casting couch leads to madness, murder and transformation (plus much spilled bodily fluids). The audition sequence is especially creepy, with the aspirant actress first told to strip (“I…didn’t realise there’d be nudity in this role”; “There isn’t.”) before being subjected to a disorientating strobe-light assault, during which she feels herself really letting go of her old inhibitions – and, it turns out, taking the first steps along a gruesome road to rebirth. In its chilling evocation of the bitterness and self-loathing underscoring ambitions to stardom, Starry Eyes makes a nicely twisted companion piece to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – though here, the solution to all the backbiting and rejection is literally to destroy the competition. Though the final act is possibly a bit too mean-spirited, it concludes on an eerily upbeat note of transcendence. Jonathan Snipes (Room 237) supplies a superb throbbing analogue synth score, lending the film a welcome retro feel (also echoed by the opening titles). Reality-warp fans and gorehounds alike should be more than content.