directed by Jill Gevargizian
starring Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant
A mesmerizing mix of Sweeney Todd, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Single White Female with a climax every bit as inevitable as it is shocking, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist is a horrific, beautiful, and heartbreaking tale of social isolation and madness set in the upscale salons and coffee shops in Kansas City, Missouri.
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is an in demand stylist at an upscale salon who gets hounded by a long time client, Olivia (Brea Grant) into doing hair for her upcoming wedding. As the wedding date approaches Claire becomes increasingly and dangerously obsessed with Olivia. Claire is actually a serial killer who scalps her victims and wears the hair in an attempt to become her victims. If you are concerned about a female director not delivering on the visceral horror rest assured there is an on-screen scalping before the film’s title appears. The film and its protagonist are all about rituals. The very nature of hairdressing is its own kind of ritual and Claire’s murders and the need for them is also very ritualistic. Gevargizian echoes William Lustig’s Maniac with Claire’s basement lair complete with scalps on mannequin heads. Unlike Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito, the scalps aren’t merely trophies for decoration, Claire plays dress up with the scalps taking on elements of her victims’ personalities in the vanity mirror. Her compulsions are clearly inspired by Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre films as she dresses in her victims’ scalps using them as a grotesque drag that allows her to become these women and, temporarily, heal her own broken mind. The scalps are Claire’s heroin and like a junkie she is constantly chasing the next high to keep going. The ritual aspect of the story grows as Olivia’s wedding day grows closer and ensnares Claire in a swirl of female wedding rituals including a bachelorette party that leads to Clarie believing she and Olivia are moving beyond the professional and into a personal friendship, but when the mean girls are overheard talking about her in the bathroom, Claire’s fantasies are shattered. She becomes dangerously obsessed with Olivia so when the big day finally arrives and Claire, ever the professional, is working on Olivia’s wedding, you just know there is not going to be a happy ending. Much like the 2020 holdover Saint Maud, I hate that the ending was not shared with an audience as I found myself talking out loud to the TV so I can only imagine a theater audience realizing what’s about to happen en masse would have been wondrous as people are going to realize what has happened at slightly different points during the final scene and if I couldn’t stay silent watching alone in my living room the energy of the theater must have been electric.
Claire is a troubling character because we know from the jump she’s a psychotic serial killer, but she is also a tortured and sympathetic character. I mean we would be rooting for her if it wasn’t for all the staking, scalping and killing. The film creates so much tension out of the audience’s sympathy and repulsion of Clarie. There is little in the way of explaining the why of Claire which makes her even scarier. No backstory or clues to her trauma. You are just dropped into her world. The entire film hinges on Najarra Townsend’s performance. Her face is etched with suffocating loneliness and longing, yet you fear her because you know exactly what she is capable of. Throughout the film you never see Claire interacting with anyone beyond the professional sphere. She talks to her clients (and victims) and to various baristas and sales clerks but no family, friends, or lovers. She doesn’t really interact with her co-workers in the salon; her only contact with people involves the transfer of money.
The Stylist is part of a growing trend of decidedly low budget horror films that look completely gorgeous. Gevargizian utilizes a number of low cost, but effective visual flair techniques including some very Brian DePalma inspired split-screen, text on screen, and shots that feel like cell phone selfies or YouTube videos. Movies are still trying to figure out how to do texting, but having the texting appear on screen in real time seems to be the most aesthetically pleasing. Certainly better than the awkward cut in shots of the phone screen, narration, or just pretending that it is 1987 and everyone just talks on the phone. Gevargizian uses the 2.39:1 widescreen to actually increase the claustrophobia and un-ease in the film and some creative editing choices really add to the film’s potency.
Director, and hair stylist, Jill Gevargizian and lead actress/producer Najarra Townsend team up for an audio commentary that also marks their first time seeing the finished film together as the Covid-19 pandemic scuttled the planned film festival screenings. The duo drop lots of behind the scenes stories and easter eggs including a scene where Najarra’s band, Archway is playing so she’s singing and acting in the same moment. The commentary details the degree of difficulty in deceptively simple shots and how they add thematic wallop instead of just looking cool. Gevargizian is unafraid to lay out her influences (including Ingmar Begman’s Persona and Brian DePalma’s Sisters, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon) she even name-drops Keir-La Janisse’s essential film book House of Psychotic Women. She knows her horror and isn’t afraid to let her love show in her filmmaking.
Alexandria Heller-Nicholas delivers an intensive visual essay, “The Invisible Woman” in which she digs down on the history of women serial killers in history and film, looks at the invisibility of women’s work and the societal issues that help to compound Claire’s already damaged psyche. Alexandria Heller-Nicholas in her essays, books, and film commentaries has no problem challenging your reading of a fim as she explores deep themes and unveils them with studious research without sacrificing wit or love for her subject or her audience. Seeing her name listed on a film’s release means you are going to have new things to think about and look for on subsequent viewings.
The Stylist is a prime example of the recent push of female created horror films and another great, splashy Blu-ray release of current small budget horror that were denied an opportunity for theatrical release and these discs help keep them from being lost in the endless deluge of titles on the various streaming platforms.