September 27, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jill Gevargizian
Culture Representation: Taking place in Kansas City, Missouri, the horror film “The Stylist” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A lonely hairstylist has a secret life of a serial killer who collects the scalps of her female victims.
Culture Audience: “The Stylist” will appeal primarily to people who like gripping psychological thrillers with stylish, 1970s-inspired noir aesthetics.
“The Stylist” takes some of the best elements of 1970s noir horror movies and serves them up in a more modern setting while also appearing to be somewhat timeless. The movie is a tension-filled journey into the disturbed mind of a serial killer who is deceptively mild-mannered to the outside world. Anchored by an effectively chilling performance by Najarra Townsend, “The Stylist” (which was filmed on location in Kansas City, Missouri) is an impressive feature-film debut by writer/director Jill Gevargizian, who brings an almost hypnotic quality to this memorable horror film. “The Stylist” feature film, which had its world premiere at the 2020 edition Fantastic Fest, is adapted from Gevargizian’s short film of the same title.
On the surface, hair stylist Claire (played by Townsend) seems to be an introverted person who can do wonders with people’s hair. She has a loyal base of clients and she is very accommodating and helpful to all of her customers. Claire is also a very lonely person, since she doesn’t have much of social life outside of her job at a small, somewhat bohemian-styled hair salon. She lives alone and only has a her female Chihuahua named Pepper to keep her company.
In the beginning of the movie, Claire meets a new customer who is visiting Kansas City on a business trip and has come into the salon for an evening appointment. The customer’s name is Sarah (played by Jennifer Seward), and an attentive Claire finds out what kind of hair service that Sarah wants. Sarah accepts Claire’s offer to have a glass of wine while Claire styles Sarah’s hair.
Claire and Sarah make small talk, but it isn’t long before Sarah opens up about her life, as people often do when they talk to a hair stylist. Sarah is married and has a 12-year-old son. But Sarah admits that she isn’t very happy in her marriage and that while she’s on this business trip, Sarah has been cheating on her husband with a “boy toy” whom she says she’ll probably never see again.
“I’m only human,” Sarah says as an excuse for her infidelity. Why is Sarah telling Claire this intimate secret? Because, as Sarah explains, she’ll probably never see Claire again either. It’s the kind of realistic dialogue that makes the people believable in “The Stylist” screenplay, which was written by Gevargizian, Eric Havens and Eric Stolze.
Sarah and Claire end up being the last people in the salon as it closes for the night. And then, Claire’s true nature comes out. The glass of wine that Sarah was drinking had been spiked by Claire. Whatever drug was in that wine has now kicked in and Sarah has passed out. Claire then takes a knife and removes Sarah’s scalp. The scalping is shown and heard in all of its gruesome details.
The movie doesn’t show what Claire does with Sarah’s body, because it does show what Claire has done with the scalp when Claire is at home. In a candle-lit room filled with a giant mirror, Claire wears the scalp and mimics the conversation that she had with Sarah, almost as if she’s reliving it but also playing the role of Sarah. It soon becomes clear that more than just wanting killing Sarah and taking her scalp, Claire also wants some piece of this woman’s life, however fleeting that feeling might be.
The rest of the movie show’s Claire going on a killing spree where she collects her female victims’ scalps. She’s careful enough to hide the bodies so that it’s a mystery over whether or not the women are missing or dead. And she does quite a bit of stalking of potential victims while having various private meltdowns in her home and in her car.
Claire is able to maintain a façade that everything is normal in her life. However, viewers might notice that she has some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, because it bothers her to do anything out of her routine. When she waits in line at her favorite coffee shop the day after she killed Sarah, Claire notices that there’s a speck of Sarah’s blood on one of Claire’s shoes.
The speck is only something Sarah can see, but the sight of it bothers her so much that she becomes agitated while she’s waiting in line and tries to use her other foot to scrape off the blood. The behind-the-counter barista named Dawn (played by Sarah McGuire) notices that something is bothering Claire, who tries to act like she’s just having a bad day. Another sign of her obsessive compulsiveness: The barista knows exactly what Claire is going to order, because she orders the same thing every time she’s in the coffee ship.
One of the things outside of Claire’s comfort zone is being a hairstylist at a wedding. She’s refused requests in the past to take wedding jobs. However, one of Claire’s loyal clients named Olivia (played by Brea Grant), who is an editor at a fashion magazine, has been begging Claire to be the hair stylist for Olivia’s wedding because another stylist bailed out of the job on short notice. Claire finally relents and agrees to Olivia’s hairstylist for the wedding.
The wedding and the preparations leading up to it set off a catalyst of events and emotions that have deadly consequences, as Sarah starts to become obsessed with being Olivia’s best friend. Claire’s need to be Olivia’s closest confidante is triggered when Olivia invites Claire to Olivia’s home to see Olivia in her wedding dress. The two women are alone together, and they both start talking about their families and their backgrounds.
Olivia and Claire both find out that they grew up without a father. Although Olivia’s mother is still alive and will be at the wedding, Claire’s mother died when she was 17. Claire says that he mother was only 35 and very drunk when she died, hinting that her childhood was probably unhappy because her mother had a drinking problem.
Claire also says that he mother was a hairstylist who would change her hairstyle every few months. “I never knew who was going to come home,” Claire says of her mother’s changing image. Meanwhile, Olivia opens up about her own troubled past, by telling Claire that she used to be a wild child and never thought she would end up getting married.
And what does Claire’s sudden interest in being close to Olivia mean for Olivia’s fiancé Charlie (played by Davis Derock)? He becomes an unwitting target of Claire’s disdain if he does anything that would Claire thinks is disrespectful to Olivia. Claire is the type to hold grudges.
Claire is also jealous of the bridesmaids who are in Olivia’s wedding party, including Olivia’s catty co-worker Monique (played by Millie Milan), who had recommended the hairstylist was who originally hired for the wedding. There’s a pivotal bachelorette party scene that is very well-acted, because it shows the first time that Claire is introduced to the women who are in Olivia’s inner circle.
All of the scenes in “The Stylist” have good acting, but the movie has added appeal because of its cinematography by Robert Patrick Stern. Colors are muted but spooky, as if to reflect the quietness of Claire and also the evil darkness that she has within her. And Claire is sometimes filmed from angles below and from the side that give the perspective of an observer who might know all of her secrets.
The way that Claire dresses (knee-high socks, velvet jackets in autumn colors) and wears her makeup (with a cat eyeliner look) evokes the aura of femme fatales of early 1970s horror movies, such as “Daughters of the Darkness” and “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.” “The Stylist’s” musical score (by Nicholas Elert) has a similarly retro vibe to it. The “shabby chic” production design by Sarah Sharp is also perfect for this movie, since many of the characters in the film look like the type of people who hunt for fashionably vintage items for home decorations and to give as gifts.
Although there’s a lot of familiarity to this serial killer story, what stands out about “The Stylist” some of the characters that you would think would be killed end up not getting killed, while other characters have surprise murders. (Writer/director Gervargizian has a cameo as one of Claire’s murder victims.)
Claire comes across to many people as meek and unassuming, but her disturbed mental state comes out when she’s alone and babbling to herself. Townsend convincingly handles these scenes in a way that doesn’t become a laughable parody of mental illness. She brings a certain authentic humanity to the role that might make some viewers feel a little bit of sympathy for Claire. Gervargizian, who’s been a hair stylist in real life, also vividly captures the disarming comfort that comes from being in the care of a hair stylist, such as the close-ups of hair getting transformed in the hands of professionals and the feeling of elation that customers have when they like the results of what’s been done to their hair.
“The Stylist” is not a fast-paced movie but it’s not dragged down by dullness either. Under the skillful direction of Gevargizian, the movie takes a dark and harrowing look at what it must be like for a serial killer to lead a double life and hide in plain sight. In between the murder and the mayhem is a person who goes about a seemingly mundane and routine life. In its own disquieting way, “The Stylist” exposes that a serial killer who has a veneer of “normality” can be much more terrifying than an obvious, out-of-control psycho.