Going to the hairdresser can be a daunting experience; they usually want to have a chat about nothing, there’s pressure to make eye contact in the mirror at awkward times and the idea of someone else washing your hair for you will never not be uncomfortable. The Stylist, the debut feature from Missouri native Jill Gevargizian, posits that going to get your hair done might actually be deadly. In fact, you could end up scalped and lying in a bin somewhere. But, hey, at least your hair looked great before you lost it, right?
The titular stylist is Claire (Najarra Townsend), a lonely young woman who, when we first meet her, is quietly working on a client at night-time after everyone else has conveniently gone home for the day. After completing the job, Claire drugs the woman – an out-of-towner with a glamorous and complicated home life she envies to a certain extent – and then methodically scalps her. Later, Claire sits down in the basement of her own home – it’s a bit like Moira Rose’s wall of wigs but less sinister – and tries on the hair while acting out what she imagines this stranger’s life was like.
Everything is going swimmingly for the stylist-by-day, scalper-by-night until one of her regular clients, Olivia (played by horror stalwart Brea Grant) contacts her to beg Claire to style her tresses for Olivia’s fast-approaching wedding. The hairdresser reluctantly agrees, which enamors her to Olivia, who unknowingly welcomes Claire into her life only to realize a bit too late that there might be a reason she doesn’t usually do weddings that has nothing to do with gas money. Suffice to say, the hair, and life, Claire really wants more than anything is Olivia’s.
The Stylist is a curious film. Ostensibly a slasher where the killer’s identity isn’t hidden and the body count is fairly low, Gevargizian and co-writers Eric Havens and Eric Stolze seem more interested in excavating the bonds of female friendship than in crafting a truly scary story. That’s not to say the film isn’t without shocks or tension. The first scalping, in particular, looks and sounds effectively gruesome. It takes a good, long while to complete, too. It’s effortful, which puts us, weirdly, on Claire’s side from the outset. Sure, she’s a murderer, but the woman’s got skills.
As a character, Claire is a fascinating contradiction; conventionally pretty, slim, successful, white, outwardly normal and well-adjusted, but with an inscrutable core. Her own hair is so beautiful it’s crazy to think she even needs to swap it out with other people’s – on that note, Olivia’s must be pretty shit if Claire hasn’t tried to steal it before, right? And yet, it’s precisely her looks and social standing that allow Claire to slip under the radar (there’s a great shot of her hiding in a shower, completely unnoticed). She’s clearly been doing this for a while, and at work too no doubt, which exemplifies her privilege.
It’s exciting to see a woman in the role of predator for once, stalking around the town (Kansas City, which is photographed beautifully) and waiting in her car to pounce. Claire blends in unnoticed for the most part; it’s only when she starts bugging Olivia in the run up to the wedding that her new friend cuts her off and, even then, it’s clear Olivia still feels bad for Claire. Although Claire is clearly dangerous, The Stylist plays with whether she’s going to turn on Olivia right up until its shocking final moments, with a haunting image that curdles the blood even though it feels somewhat inevitable.
With a title like The Stylist, styling is everything and Gevargizian pulls out all the stops from the meticulous laying out of a hairdresser’s kit that suddenly seems sinister to Claire’s wardrobe of vintage yellow dresses and knee socks, which perfectly complement her pale skin and ginger hair. The director has a fun cameo – and equally horrific death scene – while conspicuously wearing a shirt from fellow female-directed slasher movie The Ranger, in another styling nod that cements her film’s furiously feminine energy.
Likewise, Claire gets close to Olivia by wearing her scarf and, in one truly stomach-churning sequence only a woman could’ve concocted, using her vibrator. In Glenn Danzig’s recent, execrable anthology movie Verotika, a female character stole faces to hide her own scarred visage so she could strip in peace. Or something. Although Claire’s choice to scalp other women and wear their hair is equally outlandish, the idea is communicated so effectively we never question the logic behind it. As opposed to Danzig, who had the woman stripping in a mask anyway, negating the need for stolen faces in the first place.
The Stylist is essentially a two-hander, with Townsend and Grant sharing the lead role, as evidenced by a split screen of their vastly different morning routines early on. Both actresses do a fine job, Townsend hinting at Claire’s inner turmoil, a cocktail of anxiety, envy, and low self-esteem bubbling just under the surface, with a simple flick of her eyelashes or by eating a slice of pizza while laughing maniacally. There’s a war waging inside this woman who appears utterly placid on the surface but Townsend never goes full-on crazy eyes, even when the fury Claire’s been tamping down finally erupts.
Grant, reliable as always, plays Olivia as neither a pushover nor a bitch. Her life appears aspirational but it’s not perfect, despite Claire’s observations. The key issue is how well we ever really know anybody else, since Olivia sees the warning signs and heeds them while also wanting Claire’s help and hoping against all evidence that she’s isn’t going to go off the deep end in the meantime. As it turns out, those polite conversations we have while a stylist fusses with our hair are really just that. Olivia has been Claire’s client for years, but she has no idea what the woman is truly capable of.
The Stylist is the latest in a long line of female-fronted horror movies with women working behind the camera too, following Courtney Paige’s The Sinners, Natasha Kermani’s Lucky, and indeed Grant’s own 12 Hour Shift. They’re all vastly different films with their own strengths and weaknesses but what they have in common is a commitment to telling stories typically left by the wayside thanks to the long-reigning boys’ club. Gevargizian’s take is yet more evidence that horror is most exciting when told from the perspective of someone who isn’t male, white and/or straight.
Catch The Stylist on Arrow from March 1, 2021
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Jill Gevargizian
Writer(s): Jill Gevargizian, Eric Havens, Eric Stolze
Stars: Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Laura Kirk, Sarah McGuire
Release date: March 1, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Claw Productions
Run Time: 105 minutes