Exploration of grief through horror is nothing new, but Starfish may mark the first time it’s explored by way of a Lovecraftian Armageddon. For Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), the loss of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson) leaves her so devastated and broken that she barely functions on autopilot and eventually breaks into Grace’s apartment to retain closeness to her lost friend. But she wakes up one morning to the world frozen over, invaded by strange creatures, and most of humanity gone. Aubrey must navigate the terrifying new world with only the clues and mixtapes Grace left behind for her.
Writer/director/executive producer Al White, who also composed the film’s score, crafts Aubrey’s journey through the stages of grief and guilt exactly like the mixtapes she finds throughout the film. Meaning it varies in style, tempo, and genre, but is always grounded in Aubrey’s melancholy. Grace’s apartment and pets provide Aubrey an anchor, but the monoliths that have popped up in town that opened the doors to otherworldly beasts means that Aubrey’s mind often ventures into strange places too. Sometimes it’s just popping into a new landscape, other times it’s slipping into dreamlike animated sequences. And sometimes it also means popping into a reality that’s so meta it takes the viewer out of the film altogether. It’s all driven by music, a visual storytelling set to White’s score and indie soundtrack. Not everything works.
Similar to the homemade mixtape, the transitions between songs and scenes are often jarring and abrupt, making it confusing at times to follow Aubrey’s story. It smooths out for the most part, but the introductory scenes to the narrative setup feel haphazard due to the editing. As for the horror, it’s there but often just lurking out of reach. White takes cues from the Silent Hill video games, in that the monsters on screen are representative of the guilt bearing down on the main character.
This is a personal tale of grief for White, mirroring Aubrey’s story from pieces of his own life, but his musical background means that this narrative is much more aurally focused and not always very coherent. For those looking for something much more abstract, and cosmic horror tends to lend itself well to the abstract, Starfish offers a fresh perspective. But it can take awhile to get anywhere, and those looking for straightforward horror will likely find themselves frustrated. Gardner delivers a great portrayal of a woman too consumed with grief and guilt, keeping us invested in getting to the root of it, even when we never really learn much about her connection to Grace. That’s okay though, because it’s not ever really about Grace.
There’s a lot to like about Starfish; the stunning snowy landscapes, the haunting score steeped in forlornness, and the metaphor of cosmic horror as grief. But the choppy editing, the overly arthouse way it presents some of the themes, and underdeveloped aspects of the story in favor of the aural experience is ostracizing. Starfish is less story and more of an exorcism of personal loss by way of a cinematic musical mixtape. It’s cool in concept, but doesn’t always work.