“My name is Aubrey Parker. I broke into my dead friend’s apartment. Who the fuck are you?”
Starfish opens on a black screen scored only by the sound of a woman’s muffled voice, crackling and feeble. Then comes another voice, clearer but frantic: “Did you hear that?”
For a moment, we sit in a state of consciousness akin to sensory deprivation, fumbling in the dark for answers but touching nothing except the characters’ brief and desperate cries. And then suddenly, harsh, screeching music plays, and the blackness gives way to an impossibly lush landscape. It’s this kind of delicate balance—between nothing at all and everything at once, sensory deprivation and sensory overload—that Starfish perfects down to a science.
Written, directed, and scored by A.T. White, Starfish is stunning and intensely moving; this is unconventional horror at its finest. The primary conflict here arrives not in the form of a run-of-the-mill zombie outbreak or mad axe murderer on the loose; no, here, the problem lies between a mixtape, some monsters, and a grieving girl.
Aubrey (played to perfection by a radiant Virginia Gardner) is wracked with pain after the death of her best friend Grace. Following the funeral, Aubrey finds herself inexplicably drawn to Grace’s apartment, where she ends up spending a night. When Aubrey wakes in the morning, she finds the surrounding area transformed into a living nightmare: bloodstained clothes are strewn in the snowy streets, buildings are crumbling, and the whole town is empty save for terrifying creatures. It turns out that Aubrey is experiencing the end of the world, and only one thing can aid her.
Before Grace died, she recorded a mixtape—which Aubrey discovers in the apartment—describing a series of signals that can fend off the beasts roaming around. While some of the signals are hidden in radio transmissions, the remaining ones are concealed in other cassettes scattered across the town. Aubrey must find, collect, and play them; only then will she be able to banish the monsters and perhaps come to terms with her loss.
In its initial twenty-five-odd minutes, Starfish seems to be primarily a meditation on mourning and loss. There’s little to indicate the horrors to come, because it prioritizes immersing us in Aubrey’s pain over immediately devolving into apocalyptic madness. The camera often lingers for what feels like forever on unbroken shots of Aubrey’s most mundane tasks: stirring a drink. Lying in bed. Feeding a pet turtle. It’s all enough to almost make you wonder when something will happen. But the patient viewer will soon discover that these moments are meant to feel long and frozen in much the same way that grief often does. Starfish moves slowly because it wants us to experience Aubrey’s pain with her—and we do. We languish away with her in her dead friend’s apartment. We’re practically sitting next to her on the couch.
The first real scare of the film comes packaged as a grief-fueled hallucination of a silver-haired Grace, appearing in her old bed for a split second next to Aubrey and then disappearing as quickly as she came. Every hideous monster that appears after that moves in the same manner, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style. Much like Grace, they come out of nowhere with barely any time given to actually process their actions. All you really get is a long, quiet buildup, a split-second climax, the chaos left in the wake.
Which makes sense, because, again, this is a film of patient payoffs, of delightfully slow burns. There’s no immediate rush to reveal a killer or bloodied body or hideous creature—and perhaps that’s what makes the whole thing so effective in its ability to unsettle. All of these painstakingly sedate and silent moments only heighten the impact of the monsters that come, when they finally do come.
What’s most interesting about Starfish is that there’s a certain kind of muted beauty to some of these creatures. There is, for instance, a sequence in which Aubrey stares up in awe and wonderment at a many-legged monster stretching across the sky, its stomach glowing bright blue. In watching any other film, a viewer might have felt uneasy at the sight—but here, it was hard to be terrified. This thing was far too beautiful.
If Starfish serves as an allegory for the aftermath of loss, then it only makes sense that its most grotesque creatures move with such grace, imitating the delicate nature of the thing they’re representing. If misery and pain have many forms, then it only makes sense that these beasts are just as multifaceted. It’s evident that the true monster of Starfish is grief itself—all of its physical manifestations, all of the Grace-like hallucinations and real, live monsters that come from it.
Starfish is currently streaming on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Vudu.
Stills courtesy of Alberto Bañares
By Julianna Chen