The 13th Floor

Fame is a Bitch From Hell: A Horror Fan’s Perspective on NEON DEMON, STARRY EYES & MULHOLLAND DRIVE

[Note: Mild spoilers and NSFW images ahead]

What film buffs term “Hollywood Noir” or “Hollywood Gothic” is certainly not a new genre in itself; the concept of Tinseltown as a soulless, ravenous beast devouring the hopes and dreams of the innocent — especially young women with visions of stardom — is prime material for gothic melodrama and pitch-black satire.

Classic examples include the 1950 films SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE, and on the lighter side, Joe Dante & Alan Arkush’s hilarious quickie HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD is a must-see for genre fans. Even genre legend David Cronenberg weighed in on the subject in his surreal and controversial thriller MAPS TO THE STARS, and the hit series AMERICAN HORROR STORY weaves this theme into most of its plotlines. (One could argue that Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN fits this thematic cycle, but I’m omitting it on geographical terms, as it takes place entirely in New York City.)

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Of course, one of this year’s most polarizing and talked-about features — DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylized opus THE NEON DEMON — approaches this theme from the angle of supernatural horror, at least as a stylistic convention; that is, it’s not necessarily a “horror film” in the traditional sense, but makes use of many of the genre’s tropes to get its point across.

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Elle Fanning in THE NEON DEMON

After seeing Refn’s film for the first time, my mind immediately linked its story, themes and otherworldly look to two other films — films which I would also consider quite horror-centric in their approach to the dark side of Hollywood and the dog-eat-dog quest for fame: David Lynch’s 2001 classic MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer’s more recent indie thriller STARRY EYES.

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Alex Essoe in STARRY EYES

While many more films explore similar themes, and often in similar ways, none have taken such a uniquely nightmarish approach as these three projects… and if you’re ready for a heavy helping of soul-crushing cynicism wrapped in the shiniest, sparkliest package you’ve ever seen, then I hereby recommend watching them all in a single night’s marathon viewing — preferably in the order of the films’ respective release dates.

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Laura Harring & Naomi Watts in MULHOLLAND DRIVE

If you haven’t seen all of these films, note that I’m about to venture into spoiler territory here, so proceed with caution. Better yet, watch the movies ASAP, then come back and continue reading. You’ll do that for me, won’t you?

Now then: while it’s easy to let the surrealist sensibilities of each film’s director(s) act as a buffer against the life-destroying realities of show business, make no mistake: all three are horror movies about a single monster called Fame. Eater of dreams, master of lies, destroyer of innocence… let’s face it, even Satan Himself is an amateur compared to Fame, and the creators of these three films know it.

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MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

Of these three films, I still consider Lynch’s classic take on the subject to be the most haunting and sublime, as we watch naïve young Midwestern girl Betty Elms (played to perfection by Naomi Watts) imprint her own dreams of Hollywood success upon fellow actress Rita (Laura Harring) to such an extent that she falls passionately, desperately in love with her.

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This passion grows into obsession, which later sours into bitterness and hate as her once-lover seemingly becomes her rival, securing a starring role in a major production (thanks to some shadowy manipulations by a criminal cabal), while Betty ultimately struggles to survive waiting tables at a diner, her alleged shot at stardom possibly the delusion of a tortured mind.

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This bitterness becomes so intense that she eventually hires an assassin to murder Rita — setting in motion an endlessly repeating cycle of events, one that seems to have no beginning or end, with characters switching identities until we’re not sure which reality is “correct”… and since this is a Lynch film, we’ll never truly know the answer to that, if there even is one (I’m guessing not).

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But whether the events in MULHOLLAND DRIVE exist entirely within the protagonist’s head, or if they are indeed driven by supernatural forces, that distinction is less important than the fact that Watts’ character has become possessed (literally or figuratively) by the monster of her dreams: her single-minded quest for idealized Hollywood fame has destroyed her mind, her relationships, and ultimately her life.

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STARRY EYES (2013)

This haunting indie gem approaches the same subject in many of the same ways… but unlike Lynch, writer-director team Kolsch & Widmyer make no bones about the fact that their story is a pure horror film, with very little ambiguity about the real forces guiding the protagonist’s path to showbiz success.

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Alex Essoe carries the emotional weight of the film as Sarah, who also waits tables while auditioning for roles — though in an even more degrading fashion, being ogled daily by leering customers at a Hooters-like franchise. Sarah is conflicted on a daily basis, weighing the value of her own ambitions against the often horrific extremes she must endure to achieve those goals.

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As you can probably guess, even if you haven’t seen the film (you definitely should, by the way), Sarah finally tires of weighing one humiliation against another, and finally gives in to temptation in a very Biblical sense — by surrendering her body and soul to a powerful secret society, whose own success in the industry is due to their elite skills in the occult.

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STARRY EYES also descends much deeper into extreme horror than any other film of this theme, using the tropes of Cronenbergian body-morphing, demonic possession films and splattery murder set-pieces as metaphors for the heroine’s ultimate loss of humanity.

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By the film’s terrifying and gore-drenched climax, Sarah has become the Fame Monster herself (sorry Gaga, but I had to go there eventually), and even those few friends who supported her dreams are torn apart — literally — as blood sacrifices to the dark gods who run the industry.

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THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Refn’s otherworldly epic unites elements of the preceding films in its depiction of a naïve, very young and literally virginal waif named Jesse (played by Elle Fanning, who turned 17 during the production), but instead of seeking fame as an actress, this story’s heroine sets her sights on a high-fashion modeling career.

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That puts a unique spin on the concept in itself: while success in other aspects of show business often boils down to a combination of skill and luck, Jesse’s sole asset — by her own admission — is her natural beauty, something which her peers (you can’t really call them “friends”) try to approximate through any means possible… from the usual methods (cosmetic surgery and self-starvation) to more, well… unorthodox means.

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In fact, Refn has cited the story of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory — one of the world’s first documented serial killers, who allegedly bathed in the blood of countless virgins to maintain her own youth and beauty — as the primary inspiration for some of his characters’ more diabolical motivations.

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While STARRY EYES more overtly presents the idea of a supernatural underground network pulling the levers of the Hollywood machine, NEON DEMON takes a more circuitous horror route for much of its running time… but more or less reaches the same bloody conclusion.

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In my view, Refn’s film straddles the line between Lynch’s stylishly eccentric and ambiguous vision, and Kolsch & Widmyer’s more overtly genre-based approach. Fanning’s character is closer in motivation and transformation to that of Watts in MULHOLLAND, and the two characters meet arguably similar (and unfortunate) fates, whereas Sarah of STARRY EYES does achieve her dream, albeit in exchange for her humanity — and the filmmakers mean that in a very literal sense.

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While it might be a mind-crushing exercise to screen all three of these films in a single go (the total running time would be around 363 minutes, in case you’re wondering), I would still rush to that marathon without hesitation… provided it were screened theatrically. Regardless of their varied stylistic approaches, the creators of all three films are true masters of the widescreen format, and the scores and sound design for each feature are nothing less than spectacular.

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Besides, what would be more awe-inspiring than to unleash the monster which lurks beneath the neon and glitter at its fullest possible size, roaring at thunderous volume?

Just be careful… it’s always hungry.

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