We all know hairstyles have a significant effect on our confidence and how we present ourselves to the world. In 2016, writer-director Jill Gevargizian swept the festival circuit with her razor-sharp horror The Stylist. Based on a psychopathic hairstylist whose complicated secret life clashes violently with her occupation, it immediately left audiences thirsting for more. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Gevargizian was able to expand her short to feature length. Exploring how hair can define someone’s personality in a dark and sinister way, The Stylist is a savage exploration of loneliness and obsession.
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a lonely and troubled hairstylist who’s unsatisfied with her lacklustre life. She enjoys meeting new people and lending a sympathetic ear to her clients, but, unsuspected to those around her, she carries a dark secret. Claire’s way of escaping reality involves her wearing the freshly scalped hair of some of her murdered clients. Then, a frequent customer named Olivia (Brea Grant) asks Claire for an emergency hairstyling for her wedding. Claire doesn’t like to do weddings but she reluctantly agrees, encouraged by the promise of a new friendship. But as their friendship blossoms, Claire becomes increasingly fixated on Olivia’s seemingly flawless life, but vowing to lock up her scalp collection and change her murderous ways. However, repressing her deadly desire is easier said than done when a compulsion to kill starts to take over.
Since her disturbing performances in Contracted (2013) and Wolf Mother (2016), Najarra Townsend’s become somewhat comfortable with emotional extremes and navigating tonal shifts. Undoubtedly, The Stylist is anchored by the actress’s incredibly restrained performance as Claire. Similar to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female (1992) and Elijah Wood in Franck Khalfoun’s remake of Maniac (2012), Townsend imbues this disturbing character with a sympathetic heartache. While repressing her bloodthirsty tendencies, she displays a tangible emotional vulnerability that garners some empathy. Claire exists on the margins of society as someone we divulge our deepest secrets to but wouldn’t acknowledge on the street. Her quiet and timid demeanour longs for a truly personal connection, but despite her best efforts, the weight of her anxieties are overwhelming. Each morning she visits her local coffeehouse to buy her routine chai laté, sheepishly keeping her head down and not engaging in conversation with the flirtatious barista. Claire desires to be confident but it’s clear that she’s crumbling beneath the surface.
Her beautiful wide eyes are a transparent window into a profound pain that’s only alleviated by murdering and scalping people. We see Claire’s emotions fluctuate and her personality changes when she adorns her victim’s elegantly severed scalps. She frequently breakdowns in tears behind closed doors as she contemplates her decisions. However, her tears of sadness transform into maniacal laughter as she talks to herself in the mirror, imitating the voices of her victims. It’s evident Claire needs help, but her isolation forces her to deal with her issues using her untraditional coping mechanism. Unfortunately, she’s constantly left unfulfilled and forever searching for enough comfort to end her evil habit. Townsend’s remarkable dexterous performance is simultaneously spine-chilling and saddening, as she effortlessly showcases Claire’s emotional conflicts and homicidal impulses. Unsurprisingly Townsend won ‘Best Actress’ at FrightFest 2020 for her sophisticated depiction of a female serial killer.
Inspired by her real-life experience as a hairstylist, Jill Gevargizian crafts a meticulous character study that thrives on nuance. She has a unique eye for creating gorgeous imagery while crafting a stylistic thriller rooted in reality. In particular, the opening sequence is gracefully constructed and permeated by a strong sense of control. Captured in slow-motion, the methodical act of Claire washing and styling her client’s hair highlights the beauty of cosmetology. Whereas the painstaking preparation of Claire’s hairdressing kit suddenly appears sinister. The unsettling ambiance is elevated by Nicholas Elert’s (Dead Weight) mournful score, echoing Peter Strickland’s surreal horror In Fabric (2018). The director’s capabilities behind the camera are equally as striking as Robert Patrick Stern’s (Friend Request) beautiful cinematography. The deranged compositions and sumptuous lighting heighten the surrealism and paranoia. Claire’s occasional moments of murderous rage are bathed in warm reds, conveying the violence occurring in her mind echoing Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975). Gevargizian displays complete confidence within her filmmaking sensibilities, crafting a very refined and stylish piece.
While The Stylist remains visually pleasing, the script by Gevargizian and co-writers Eric Havens (Call Girl) and Eric Stolze (Under the Bed) isn’t without flaws. Undoubtedly, one can see the origins of Gevargizian’s feature expanding from the original 15-minute short. However, the languorous pacing isn’t satisfyingly developed enough to justify a 105-minute runtime. Gevargizian seems more interested in excavating Claire and Olivia’s relationship rather than crafting a truly scary story. The second act features several scenes primarily focussed on the minutiae of Claire’s awkward social encounters. Instead of exploring Claire’s fragile psyche and motives, we see her repeatedly checking her phone for messages. Gevargizian has said “we experimented with telling her complete back story. We did try to hint at it with things in her house, her conversations with Olivia, but I never wanted to spell anything out.” Unlike Lucky McKee’s May (2003), where Angela Bettis’ devastating trauma and loneliness is fully developed, there’s a lack of understanding of Claire’s mental anguish that would enrich the story.
The Stylist is restrained in its bloodshed, as Gevargizian focuses on the horrors surrounding lonely people desperately trying to fit in. However, when the story explores Claire’s gruesome hobby, the commendable SFX deliver some unflinchingly brutal violence. The director’s love for 1980s horror contains similar manic energy as Brian De Palma (Carrie). Her particular style of execution is menacing, serving up a satisfying amount of blood and gore reminiscent of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). This is particularly true in the opening sequence, as we witness Claire using her scissors to slice across the hairline of her first victim; the attention to detail as she peels back her victim’s scalps is stomach-churning. Heightened by Stosh Tuszynski’s (Girl on the Third Floor) incredible sound design, one hears the scalp being forcibly torn away from the skull. Whereas her macabre collection of stolen scalps in her basement pays homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Even for a seasoned horror veteran, the gruesome kills aren’t for the squeamish.
Coinciding with Courtney Paide’s The Sinners (2020) and Natasha Kermani’s Lucky (2020), The Stylist is the latest in a series of female-produced horror movies. There’s no denying Gevargizian delivers a woman’s perspective on a traditionally masculine story. While many movies featuring a female antagonist insinuate their homicidal behaviour is due to a mythical hysteria embedded in women. The Stylist has a lot to express regarding the female psychological pressures of friendship and identity within society. Claire’s an isolated character, envious of the successful lives of the women that grace her salon chair. As her clients divulge their life stories and extramarital affairs, she sees in them qualities that she’s too insecure to embody. When she murders her victims, her ambition isn’t to exact dominance, it’s to fully encompass their lifestyle. Similar to Glenn Danzig’s horror anthology Verotika (2019), where a character hides behind the faces of others to fulfil her sexual fantasies, Claire wears the scalps of her victims to escape her tragic life. Echoing Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the haunting image of Claire donning her victim’s scalps serves as a chilling metaphor for self-reinvention.
Overall, The Stylist is a tragic tale of a woman who couldn’t find her place in the world. Gevargizian delivers a glimpse into the social anxiety and depression of today’s society through the eyes of a serial killer. Najarra Townsend gives a spellbinding performance that aptly captures the emotional pain of her character. While it’s incredibly stylish in places, the monotonous second act and slow pacing make it difficult to watch.
USA | 2021 | 105 MINUTES | 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:
Following the release of Arrow Video’s documentary Clapboard Jungle (2020), it’s wonderful to see the label championing independent filmmakers in the horror genre. The Stylist is presented on Blu-ray in its original 2:39:1 aspect ratio with a beyond satisfactory 1080p transfer. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the vibrant colour palette that creates some stunning tones. The evocative use of purples and greens during Olivia’s bachelorette party is incredibly vivid. Whereas the combination of warm reds and yellows is gorgeous. Blacks remain inky with some appealing definition during the darker sequences. The levels of detail are sublime with clothing textures and hair strands easily discernible. Overall, the picture quality is superb throughout, border-lining a 4K transfer.
The Stylist features a rather subdued DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix with optional English subtitles. Admittedly, the audio track will not test the muscle of your audio system. However, there are moments that will echo through the entire sound field. The bursts of heightened activity during the nightclub scene sweep the soundstage. The rear channels immediately light up with thumping music that creates a truly immersive atmosphere. Nicholas Elert’s subliminal score and frequent ambiance remain primarily towards the side. Dialogue is consistently clear and stable remaining at the front channels.
2-Disc Limited Edition Contents:
- Limited Edition Blu-ray and Soundtrack CD collection.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
- Original DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio.
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck.
- Double-sided fold-out poster.
- Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Emma Westwood and a gallery of exclusive location scouting photographs.
Disc 1 (Blu-ray)—The Stylist:
- Audio commentary by co-writer/producer/director Jill Gevargizian and actress/producer Najarra Townsend. An entertaining discussion between director Jill Gevargizian and actress Najarra Townsend. The pair disclose that the global pandemic preventing them from attending the premier and this is the first time they’ve viewed The Stylist together. Gevargizian proves to be a great host, taking control of most of the discussion. The director provides plenty of trivia and information regarding the production of The Stylist.
- Exclusive Blu-ray introduction by Jill Gevargizian.
- The Invisible Woman, an exclusive visual essay by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, exploring the themes of women’s labor and female killers in The Stylist and horror cinema. An interesting video essay by author and film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Running at 20-minutes, she uses The Stylist as a launchpad to discuss the roles frequently occupied by women where their identities are barely recognized or acknowledged. She also briefly analyses the representation of male and female serial killers and how they are frequently represented in cinema. This is a really interesting feature that delivers a better understanding of the emotional undercurrent permeating throughout The Stylist.
- The Stylist – Behind the Scenes, a series of eight behind-the-scenes featurettes on different aspects of the film’s production, featuring interviews with the cast and crew. Comprised of several short chapters that can be played individually, this is essentially a 60-minute documentary. Featuring several interviews with the cast and crew, this provides a wealth of information and background on the making of The Stylist. A broad range of topics are covered including characters, production design, and filming in Kansas City. While most of the information is covered in the commentary track, it’s fascinating to hear thoughts from other key cast and crew members.
- Location scouting featurette.
- Original Kickstarter video.
- The original 2016 ‘The Stylist’ short film directed by Jill Gevargizian and starring Najarra Townsend, that inspired the main feature.
- Pity, a 2016 short film directed by The Stylist’s editor, John Pata, and executive produced by Jill Gevargizian, with an optional introduction by Pata.
- Teaser trailer.
- Theatrical trailer.
- Image galleries.
Disc 2 (CD)—The Stylist Soundtrack (Limited Edition Exclusive):
- CD containing the original The Stylist Soundtrack.
Cast & Crew
director: Jill Gevargizian.
writers: Jill Gevargizian, Eric Havens & Eric Stolze.
starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant & Davis DeRock.