Musician Al White of the UK band Ghostlight makes his film debut as a director, writer, and composer in Starfish, a surreal blend of slow-burning experimental horror and soft science fiction. It leads the audience down a dreamy and bizarre rabbit hole, tackling themes of loss, grief, guilt, and self-forgiveness. While the film champions a catchy soundtrack, haunting scores, and exquisite cinematography, it still has its share of shortcomings in regard to the actual plot and storytelling.
Starfish focuses on Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) after the death of her beloved friend, Grace (Christina Masterson), who died from unexplained causes. Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment to wallow and take care of her menagerie of pets, including a tortoise named Bellini and a large bowl of jellyfish which she feeds by dropping starfish into the bowl. After getting settled into her squatting, Aubrey finds an envelope addressed to her with a mixtape inside that claims “This mixtape will save the world.” A recording of Grace’s voice declares that the tape contains signals within the songs that contain messages of impending doom. Aubrey must find all seven of the mixtapes hidden throughout the quiet, frosty town and piece them together. Thus begins a journey into the unknown, in both the external world and within Aubrey’s tormented psyche.
We see faceless chthonic monsters stalking Aubrey in her dreams, but Starfish is determined to be vague about what is literal and what is metaphorical. Aubrey is haunted by her grief over Grace and guilt about her own past, and the Lovecraftian humanoids seem to be personifications of her negative internalized feelings. The scavenger hunt for the mixtapes feels like the tape could easily have been nothing more than MacGuffin to help Aubrey embrace her very real, very grounded emotions. However, the film goes beyond metaphorical, and fully immerses itself in the speculative. The apocalypse is coming. With every tape she listens to, each well-curated song transports her through a dissociative interdimensional odyssey, bouncing from tundra to oceans to Japanese animation, and even dabbling in meta for a brief moment. It is a cerebral journey through space and time that has to pull over every once in a while to let Aubrey process her own personal turmoil.
Starfish makes for a compelling psychological thriller in the vein of ‘The Babadook’ in a Lovecraft scenario
While the film is visually stunning with its arthouse surrealism and breathtaking cinematography, it still struggles to seamlessly integrate the emotional grit with the cosmic horror. It has its strengths in both of these elements, particularly in White’s spectacular scores and the indie soundtrack (which I now want), but the science fiction/horror elements struggle to piece together any real plot. Little goes explained about how or why the world is ending, which leaves it open-ended yet frustrating when you’ve been invested in Aubrey and just want her to succeed and move on with her life. The music video-esque special effects and surrealism feel out of place in a story entrenched in down-to-earth humanistic themes such as grief and guilt.
Overall, I would have preferred Starfish to keep the Armageddon themes metaphorical and psychological rather than try to convince us it was really happening. At its core, the film makes for a compelling psychological thriller in the vein of The Babadook in a Lovecraft scenario, but it doesn’t have quite enough science fiction to call it a science fiction film, nor enough horror to call it a horror film. Still, it’s lovely to look at and has well-crafted shots. A personal favorite involves a conversation Aubrey imagines having with Grace in bed. Even though the camera goes from shot to reverse-shot as they talk, both women are laying on the same side of the bed rather than facing each other, reminding the audience that it’s all happening in Aubrey’s mind. That kind of attention to detail is very admirable for a first-time director. While the plot may have needed some strengthening, Starfish makes for a scenic cinematic experience into a new world.
Fantastic Fest runs September 20 – September 27. Visit the official website for more information.