The Harvey Weinstein story is a horror film all its own, but there are echoes of it across the genre. When you are desperate to accomplish something and there are those with power who can manipulate your success, victimization is the likely result in horror. We salute the best films that see Hollywood ambition as death and corruption in the making.
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5. The Neon Demon (2016)
“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
So says an uncredited Alessandro Nivola, a fashion designer waxing philosophic in Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Bronson, Drive) nightmarish The Neon Demon.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an underaged modeling hopeful recently relocated to a sketchy motel in Pasadena. Will she be swallowed whole by the darker, more monstrous elements of Hollywood?
Hollywood is a soulless machine that crushes people. The world objectifies women, a toxic reality that poisons everyone it touches. Small town girl gets in trouble following her dreams in Tinseltown. There’s nothing new here. To manufacture something, it’s as though Refn replaces fresh ideas with bizarre imagery.
The film is not without its charms. Like Only God Forgives, the longer you wander through this nightmarish landscape, the more outlandish the dream becomes.
And you know what? Keanu Reeves isn’t bad. Huh!
4. Starry Eyes (2014)
Sarah (Alex Essoe) is an aspiring actress in LA and a bit of a delicate flower. She lives in a complex full of other aspiring actors, but she doesn’t hang out with them or participate in their low budget indie circle – they believe she thinks she’s too good for them. Then she auditions for a part, does some things on camera for the audition she regrets, behaves weirdly in the bathroom, and is invited to meet The Producer.
On the one hand, Starry Eyes offers an obvious plot about selling your soul for success, dressed in a cautionary tale about Hollywood. But the writing/directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer are much more sly than that. Yes, the insights they provide about the backbiting lowest rungs of the Hollywood ladder abound, but they are far more compassionate than what you routinely see.
Also fascinating is the clever use of the protagonist Sarah – she begins as our empathetic heroine, our vehicle through the daily degradation of trying to “make it.” But the filmmakers have more in store for her than this, and Essoe uncomfortably peels layer after layer of a character that is never fully what we expect.
Look for outstanding, witchy appearances by genre veteran Maria Olsen, as well as a spot-on Louis Dezseran. They will make you uncomfortable.
3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? Yes, please!
The two then-aging (just barely, if we’re honest) starlets played aging starlets who were sisters. One (Davis’s Jane) had been a child star darling. The other (Crawford’s Blanche) didn’t steal the limelight from her sister until both were older, then Blanche was admired for her skill as an adult actress. Meanwhile, Jane descended into alcoholism and madness. She also seemed a bit lax on hygiene.
Blanche winds up wheelchair bound (How? Why? Is Jane to blame?!) and Jane’s envy and insanity get the better of her while they’re alone in their house.
Famously, the two celebrities did not get along on set or off. Whether true or rumor, the performances suggest a deep, authentic and frightening hatred borne of envy that fuels the escalating tension.
Davis is at her unhinged best in a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination. Crawford pales by comparison (as the part requires), but between the hateful chemistry and the story’s sometimes surprising turns, this is a movie that ages well, even if its characters did not.
2. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Not Hollywood – Germany. But actors are putting their fate in the wrong hands for the sake of stardom nonetheless.
E. Elias Merhige revisits F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu with smashing results in Shadow of the Vampire. Wickedly funny and just a little catty, ‘Shadow’ entertains with every frame.
This is the fictional tale of the filming of Nosferatu. Egomaniacal artists and vain actors come together to create Murnau’s groundbreaking achievement in nightmarish authenticity. As they make the movie, they discover the obvious: the actor playing Count Orlok, Max Schreck is, in fact, a vampire.
The film is ingenious in the way it’s developed: murder among a pack of paranoid, insecure backstabbers; the mad artistic genius Murnau directing all the while. And it would have been only clever were it not for Willem Dafoe’s perversely brilliant performance as Schreck. There is a goofiness about his Schreck that gives the otherwise deeply horrible character an oddly endearing quality.
Eddie Izzard doesn’t get the credit he deserves, reenacting the wildly upbeat performance of Gustav von Wagenheim so well. The always welcome weirdness of Udo Kier balances the egomaniacal zeal John Malkovich brings to the Murnau character, and together they tease both the idea of method acting and the dangerous choice of completely trusting a director.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Again, not Hollywood, New York. But how genius is this movie?
Rosemary’s Baby remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell.
Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Roman Polanski spins a tale of mid-run actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) who sells his wife’s womb for success. Dude!
Like so many of these films, Rosemary’s Baby sees the Faustian dilemma not in terms of carnal or intellectual pursuits, but the desperate drive for stardom. The fact that Guy doesn’t even have to sacrifice anything himself actually makes the evil that much more frustrating and horrifying.
Of course, Mia Farrow’s embodiment of helplessness and Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning turn as rouged busybody Minnie Castavet only give the film more and surprising layers. It’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and storytelling.