‘Star Time’ (1992): A visually unsettling indie shocker

Cult releasing company Vinegar Syndrome has just put out—on a crisp, flawless, extras-heavy, director’s cut Blu-ray/DVD combo—Star Time, the 1992 indie shocker from producer/writer/director Alexander Cassini, starring Michael St. Gerard, John P. Ryan, and Maureen Teefy.

By Paul Mavis

Having only a miniscule theatrical release in 1993 after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Star Time did better as a VHS rental with fans of obscure horror, no doubt roping in slasher enthusiasts with its creepy poster art of a baby-masked killer wielding an axe. Those viewers looking for standard horror/slasher genre thrills, however, won’t find them in the more subtle, interior-based Star Time, a visually unsettling journey into the perceptions of a serial killer…with some less-successful jabs at the effects of television and our consumer society thrown in for good measure.

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Hell-A loser Henry Pinkle (Michael St. Gerard) is going to kill himself. Obsessed with the sitcom, The Robertson Family, Henry won’t live in a world that allows the show’s cancellation. His kind, understanding social worker, Wendy (Maureen Teefy) is of zero help for the already-gone Henry. In a series of flashbacks, we see her efforts to engage Henry repeatedly fail.

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Lucky for Henry that when he’s just about to jump off a building, ‘ol Sam Bones (John P. Ryan) appears. A show biz vet, Sam manages to break through Henry’s suicidal fog and goad him into not jumping. How? By promising that if Henry has the “determination,” Henry can be what he’s always wanted to be: a TV star. How? By letting his “emotion” become “art,” and in the process…become a serial killer. Is Sam real? Is he the Devil? Is he a splintered part of Henry? And will Wendy be able to save Henry, before she becomes the “Baby-Face Killer”’s next victim?

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Although I had a vague recollection of that creepy baby-face mask, I can’t say I remember ever seeing Star Time…and I thought I saw all the slasher movies from that time period. Right off the bat, however, I could tell that producer/writer/director Alexander Cassini’s low-budget psychological suspenser was going to go places that the average horror flick from that era avoided.

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Dispensing with a day-follows-night(mare) time structure, with the usual accompanying A-B-C editing, Cassini’s disjointed, stream-of-(disturbed) consciousness narrative alienates and unsettles the viewer from the get-go. We’re not sure what we’re watching: a dream; flashback “reality;” or the altered perceptions of a deeply disturbed young man. Indeed, throughout all of Star Time, through the use of confusion-causing jump cuts (often showing two events in the same space that couldn’t possibly happen), Cassini admirably keeps us off balance by never conceding to absolute assuredness in what we’re watching. Did Henry ever really perch on Wendy’s bedroom bureau, watching her sleep in the nude? Did Henry ever lie down next to her, nude himself, wearing his baby mask…or did she, somehow dream it? We’re never sure.

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Aiding this destabilizing tone is Cassini’s dehumanized visual framework (best illustrated by that unnerving host of TV monitors in Henry’s apartment—made bigger and sleeker in his fantasies—that break up a woman’s body parts over the screen count). In his director’s commentary, Cassini talks about some of the influences on his work, including Godard’s futuristic crime thriller, Alphaville, and Cassini’s prior association with Italian helmer Michelangelo Antonioni (he doesn’t go into detail on what that association was). One can certainly see within Star Time cinematographer Fernando Arguelles’s frames, the menacing, lonely industrial scapes that instantly reminded me of Red Desert.

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In his interior shots, Cassini’s smart in the way he remains uncomfortably close in on Henry’s slack face (we’re too close for comfort…or for empathy) before he cuts the camera back to a pitiless high angle, showing Henry isolated off to the far side of the dark, hard-surfaced environments. It may be more bargain-basement Blue Velvet (the ironic, overly-broad bluesy music and the mid-century modern furnishings in the noirish dark apartments) than the surreal Eraserhead, but Cassini comes close to achieving a Lynchian combo of suppressed emotional hysteria amid a dreamlike, sinister environment.

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Where Star Time misses the mark is in staying a bit too distant and removed and hazy when it comes to illustrating Henry’s madness. While Cassini’s atmosphere and visual schematic is controlled and expressive, his scripting has some hollows that rob the movie of any genuine power. It may seem like a small point, but we should have seen The Robertson Family sitcom, and we should have seen Henry connecting to it. It’s not enough for him to just casually mention it, or scream at the sight of it on a TV screen, if we want to understand his obsession with television. If we’re asked to believe that Henry is a casualty, somehow, of his TV fixation, it’s impossible to get that across to the viewer without showing it. Being told it, isn’t the same as being shown it.

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Just as critically, but a bigger point: the murders should have been on-screen, too. Cassini, in his commentary, states he never liked violence for violence’s sake in these kind of genre movies (he rejects the “slasher/horror” moniker for Star Time). However, if Star Time is meant to be “something more” than just a slice and dice, the violence would then be justified, no? If the movie is a warped reflection of Henry’s interior state…wouldn’t those horrific murders be front and center there? How can we then experience the horror of what is happening to his mind, if we don’t see the actual horror he’s committing (it’s not effective at all to have a parodistic newscast tell us he’s committed 14 murders—it just doesn’t work)? This bloodless, off-screen approach unfortunately contributes to Star Time’s somewhat “bloodless,” reserved psychological examination.

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As for Star Time’s central message—be careful: obsessing over TV’s insistence that you be a “winner” can turn you into a serial killer—that message was already goofy and hackneyed in ’92, let alone now. It’s the of kind fuzzy cause-and-effect thinking that artists like Cassini love to plotz over, but which any reasonable-thinking 8-year-old would laugh at…because as any child well knows: TV isn’t real. If Cassini seriously believed his own fears and thesis, he’d then have some real trouble explaining why we don’t have a nation filled with 100s of millions of serial killers. Cassini shows Henry’s “ancestors,” like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy in TV clips, as if that’s proof of Henry’s lineage, and as some dire, goofy warning to us, I suppose..but I’ve yet to read anything that postulates that watching too much safe, bland TV made those real-life killers psychotic. I think it’s safe to say a switch was missing with them from birth—changing the channels wouldn’t have mattered much (don’t worry, dear reader—you should be fine, too, if you like shows like the fictional Robertson Family). Perhaps if Cassini had more fully embraced the farce elements of his “Mr. TV Mephistopheles” tale, he could have wrought a horror flick that made us queasy while we laughed. Unfortunately, after listening to his commentary track…I think he really believes some of this guff (Cassini’s fatalistic assertion, put right up front in the movie, that we’re all permanent victims of a “cosmic lottery” that forever locks us into either success or failure, is the worst kind of socialist crap).

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Fortunately, Star Time’s two-out-of-three central performances aid immeasurably in selling Cassini’s dopey concerns. Cassini himself admits that viewers are split on Michael St. Gerard’s lead performance as Henry. I come down on the side that he’s strictly from hunger, offering an amateurish, surface performance that conveys almost no inner depth or complexity. Right. Maureen Teefy, however, is particularly impressive as the concerned, caring Wendy. A theater-trained actress, Teefy slows down and lets her expressive face carry a lot more info to us than is in the script. It’s a performance that’s way above the grade for similar low-budget horror outings.

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As for legendary exploitation actor John P. Ryan, as expected, he’s compelling and hilarious and just…off, as the cajoling, upbeat, sinister Sam Bones. To hear Cassini tell it, Ryan was a “literal nightmare” who was fired off the set at one point (interestingly…the cinematographer says Ryan was fine), but frankly, who cares what he’s doing when he’s giving a performance that holds Star Time together (Cassini’s answer to such behavior—act like a bigger ass. That should help). With some choice lines from Cassini that sound ad-libbed coming from quirky Ryan (“Have a jelly bean!”), Ryan provides most of the juice that is missing from Gerard’s high school performance. It’s a pity Cassini didn’t think of having Ryan play both parts….

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A brief note about Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray transfer and Star Time’s extras. The 1.85:1 Blu is a newly scanned 2k transfer from the original camera negative. Colors are necessarily muted, but fine image detail is high, grain is tight and filmic, and the image super-clean (the 2.0 DTS-HD stereo soundtrack is whisper-clean, with some discreet separation effects). For bonuses, there’s a commentary track with Cassini, with not as much behind-the-scenes info as I would have cared for (he devotes a lot of time to discussing his theories and his background, which are interesting…if a bit whacky). Shooting Star Time, an interview with cinematographer Fernando Arguelles, runs 31:35, with some interesting asides about the shoot. There’s an early short from Cassini—The Great Performance, from 1983—that runs 5:00 (a trite nothing about a clown performing as a man for an audience of clowns. Yep…that bad). And finally, an original trailer (1:44).

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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