Director: A.T. White
Starring: Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell, Tanroh Ishida
Writer: A.T. White
You’re going to want to go back upstairs now… and lock the door.
By the time Starfish truly delves into its story, I had completely forgotten that the film started with “based on a true story.” Remembering that is the key to unlocking which parts of the film to focus on and which parts are just flavor. Impressive and scary flavor, of course, but ultimately in service of the simpler story of a woman dealing with guilt and grief.
We first see Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) at a funeral for her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson). She’s sad and quiet and clearly feels unwelcome or unworthy being there. There are intriguing flashes to earlier days, including night swimming with a man. Aubrey leaves and ends up breaking into Grace’s apartment and spending the night there. We spend a lot of the early part of the film watching Aubrey explore this space she must have been in countless times before but by herself this time. By the end of this whole section, we still don’t quite have a clear understanding of where Starfish will turn. Will it turn into a slasher film? A ghost story?
I don’t know what I expected, but I definitely didn’t expect what we got.
It’s hard to talk about the rest of the film without feeling like I’m giving away a ton of spoilers, so here’s an official [SPOILER ALERT] even though I’ll try to keep things as vague as possible.
When Aubrey wakes up the next day, things have changed. The weather is different, the town is different. People are gone, strange totems have appeared. She comes across some awful creature, and her only communication with anyone else is a voice over a radio. Apparently, Grace and some others knew about some cosmic signal that will open the door to another dimension. Grace knew Aubrey was the only person who would come close to believing her, so she made seven mixtapes and hid them for Aubrey to find. When played back-to-back, the frequency of the songs will shut the door to that other dimension.
At least, I think.
A.T. White, the writer, director, and composer of the film, isn’t too concerned with laying out the exact logic of the plot. Rightfully so. The movie is an emotional and sensory experience. A mixtape a friend gave you is a powerful thing; listening to it can bring to mind memories and feelings related to one specific person in an instant. It’s the perfect device to use in an allegory about overcoming the loss of that person.
Gardner is a great choice for the lead. She’s in almost every frame of the film and has to carry the entire thing on her shoulders. She makes it look easy. Between this, Halloween, and Monster Party, she’s turning into an extremely reliable horror lead. A real breakout could put her on the level of Anya Taylor-Joy, and if Starfish gets enough attention, it could absolutely be that for her.
The biggest detriment to the movie is that you can feel the length. It’s an hour and forty minutes, and it doesn’t exactly fly by. There are enough interesting moments on screen that I never felt bored, but it probably could have been tightened up a little more.
Where the film did gangbusters was its depiction of reality basically coming undone. I’ll throw up another [SPOILER ALERT] because I want to talk about two moments in particular that stood out. The first was a beautiful sequence in the middle of the film where everything becomes a cartoon, animated by Japan’s Tezuka Productions. It was wholly unexpected, and it blew my mind, reminding me of a similar sequence in last year’s Mandy. The second segment I loved was when Aubrey appeared in our world, sneaking around the actual production of the film Starfish. Those moments were big and interesting and really took things to another level above strange visions and Silent Hill-style creatures.
Again, coming back to the film being “based on a true story,” you could really feel how personal it was to White. There were small moments and large emotions that were so well-observed. It truly made me believe that, even in the face of shifting realities and towering monstrosities, sometimes the most important thing in a person’s life will be the loved one they just lost.