Director: A.T. White
Notable Cast: Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell
A random "best of the year in horror" list on social media from an acquaintance of mine is the reason Starfish ended up in my review queue. The author listed Starfish as his #2 slot. This is how I came to watch this film. If I had heard of the film in my previous excursions around the genre internet, it never made an impact on me to remember to keep an eye out for it. Even though it recently dropped on VOD, Starfish had almost no marketing and hype to it in my world. Partner that with the rather intriguing, but bland poster and I'm not sure I would have watched this film. Shame, really. Starfish is fantastic and it deserves so much more hype and discussion that I’m seeing it receive.
To call it strictly a horror film or science fiction film would undermine much of the film's genre-bending and character-study focused narrative. Recent comparisons to other similar films like A Quiet Place are relatively surface level at best. Starfish is best compared to the likes of the mumblecore horror scene in its intentionally minimalistic and "slice of life" approach to its plot. As a plot, the film focuses on a young woman who is attending the funeral of a friend when a wild "alien" invasion occurs. Seemingly overnight, the small town is caked in snow and horrific monsters stalk the streets. As it would happen, our heroine's lost friend was onto something about these creatures and had systematically laid out cassette tapes around the town for her friend to find and splice together to create a signal that could possibly quell the threat.
Starfish sounds like a bold sci-fi horror adventure film by the plot, but don't be mistaken. That is not the tone nor intent of this film. Director and writer A.T. White delivers a film that is all about the nuance. Again, this is a rather bold choice for a film about an alien invasion with a secret plan to splice together sounds recorded on cassette tapes that is meant to end the onslaught. It’s mostly a ruse though. This is not a film about the alien invasion. This is a film about a young woman who is coming to grips with her grief by piecing together memories of her past life in a way to create something new. It's a parable more than anything and White treats it as such. The film often sacrifices logic and traditional genre pacing to dig into the small moments while exploring the visual/auditory tone of her emotional state. It diligently spends its time as a film making the audience part of the lead character's psyche and then deliberately slathers the rest of the narrative in symbolism in response to that focus.
Fortunately, the execution of Starfish is strong enough to carry the long, drawn out and artistic approach to the material. Virginia Gardner handedly carries the weight of the film as the lead, embedding the character with all of the right moments and emotional impact. She is uplifted by White as a director who is not afraid to let moments hang and keep his monsters hidden for the audience to imagine the worst. When the film does pander further into the alien invasion plotting, it uses the atmosphere and lower budget to build tension around the event rather than purely going for the traditional thrills and spectacle. Perhaps the one thing that will truly divide audiences is the use of music in the film. It's a significant part of the film, seeming to create that link between music and emotion that is very powerful for people in their youth. It's also fairly live or die by the audience's willingness to accept that the film is relentlessly filled with music and it's relatively similar in style and feel. It works with the tone, but if a person is not a fan of that style of indie music, this film could immediately become a grating experience.
Starfish is definitely a massive surprise for 2019 in genre cinema. It's not strictly a horror or science fiction film, at least in how it's presented, but it uses its genre leanings in some impressively emotional and heartfelt ways to deliver a character study worth finding. As mentioned, it’s a shame that it’s not making more of a splash with those who appreciate a strange and unique angle on the usual genre trappings, but here’s to hoping that I can at least do my part to spread the word about the hidden gem that is this film.
Written By Matt Reifschneider