David Cronenberg returns to his toy box of perverse characters and plots, adding in the not at all taboo themes of incest and mental illness for his latest horror Maps to the Stars. For the most part it’s an enjoyable film sitting uncomfortably on a line between being too structurally experimental for mainstream cinema goers and being too much of a mesh of ghost story and mental illness for serious art cinema. Cronenberg orchestrates a chaos of anxiety, stardom, sex, and messed up characters that never earn our full empathy throughout the film. Some have also classed it as a satire, though I’m not sure to what extend I’d agree.
Maps to the Stars can be categorized as belonging to a horror sub-genre that has become exhausted over the last fifteen years or so. Films that explore ghost/monster worlds through the ‘logic’ of mental illness have commercially flourished in abundance. In the case of Maps to the Stars both schizophrenia and sexual abuse trauma/fame obsession are to blame for- but never fully explain, the character’s hallucinations of dead people.
‘People don’t enter our lives for no reason, we call for them’ John Cusack’s character, a self-help coach who’s cares more for his reputation and wealth than his family, tells erratic fading actress Havana Segrand. Julianne Moore gives another spellbinding performance in the role as Segrand. Painting the shallow portrait of fame and the junky-like compulsion for it. Her mother, an actress of cult status, died in a fire and now with her potentially being cast in a remake of her mother’s films she sees it as a divine sign when burns survivor Agatha enters her new life as her new ‘chore whore’. Agatha comes across as a shy and genuine girl who’s happy to be Segrand’s bitch, she’s in awe of Hollywood; ‘I’m not used to glamour’ she laughs timidly. She claims to have been in an electrical fire in a planetarium when she was twelve but the truth behind her burns eventually leads us to discover her schizophrenia.
At first Maps to the Stars is divided between Segrand and child star Benjie and his family, apparently linked by a shared agent and Benjie’s father’s coach, client relationship with her. The veil of sane/insane and ghost/living begins to thin. They share in a ghost world. After visiting a fan in hospital Benjie starts to see dead children. At first he blames a guilty conscience then the plot thickens. Segrand is haunted by the ghost of her mother who watches and torments her. The hallucinations escalate especially for brat Benjie who begins to kill his ghosts- which as we know aren’t ghosts at all. The film suggests his schizophrenia is hereditary. Agatha it turns out is not the innocent explorer of Hollywood she appeared to be. She is the result of an incestuous brother-sister relationship- just like Benjie. It is never clear if genetics are to blame for their mental state but arguably the shame has aggravated it. Cronenberg doesn’t hold a high premium on the science of matters though. Instead he brings the story to a close like the casting of a spell. The problems here are solely ritual, a curse carried since the night of the fire. Like a fairy tale they re-enact that night and thus end the deadly circle of history and its repeats.
Maps to the Stars offers some innovation to mainstream film. It plays with structure and mildly ventures into satire. In the first half an hour or so it had me believing that this may be a David Cronenberg film that I actually like. However, just as my opinion was shifting the film fell into the clichés of its sub-genre. Similar to other films grouped in this club it presentation of illness come supernatural happenings was handled in an untasteful manor. Although Maps to the Stars isn’t by any means unwatchable the gaps in the story and the overdone ‘spooky’ child ghosts makes it unsuccessful as a serious film and as a horror.