Review: ‘They Wait in the Dark,’ starring Sarah McGuire, Patrick McGee, Laurie Catherine Winkel, Paige Maria, Chris Bylsma and Meagan Flynn

May 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Patrick McGee and Sarah McGuire in “They Wait in the Dark” (Photo by Hanuman Brown-Eagle/1091 Pictures)

“They Wait in the Dark”

Directed by Patrick Rea

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the horror film “They Wait in the Dark” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman goes into hiding with her young son while her estranged female lover tries to find her, and a ghost seems to be attacking this runaway mother. 

Culture Audience: “They Wait in the Dark” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching flawed but suspenseful low-budget horror movies that have some unexpected twists and turns.

Paige Maria and Laurie Catherine Winkel in “They Wait in the Dark” (Photo by Hanuman Brown-Eagle/1091 Pictures)

The horror movie “They Wait in the Dark” is nearly derailed by the amateurish performances from almost all of the cast members. However, the screenplay and direction hold up quite well, when it comes to suspense and a few surprises. This is a movie that seems to be about one thing in the beginning but it turns into something completely different by the end.

Written and directed by Patrick Rea, “They Wait in the Dark” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) is mostly about a harrowing runaway trip taken by a woman in her 30s named Amy (played by Sarah McGuire) and her son Adrian (played by Patrick McGee), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. (“They Wait in the Dark” was filmed in Topeka, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.) It’s soon revealed that Amy has taken Adrian from their home because Amy wants to go into hiding with Adrian. Amy has decided to go back to her hometown and hide at the abandoned house where deceased widower father used to live.

The movie’s opening scene shows Amy waking up from a nightmare. Amy and Adrian (whom Amy has given the affectionate nickname Bubba) have fallen asleep on the floor of a gas station convenience store. They check into the DeSoto Inn Motel, which is the kind of place where it doesn’t matter that Amy says she doesn’t have a credit card because she can pay by cash. The motel also doesn’t ask for identification from anyone who stays there.

Within walking distance from the motel is an eatery called Nelle Belle’s Diner. Amy and Adrian go there to get something to eat and drink. A waitress named Jenny (played by Paige Maria) immediately recognizes Amy, because Amy and Jenny used to be friendly acquaintances and have known each other since they were teenagers. Amy hasn’t been back to this area in a few years.

When Jenny asks where Adrian’s father is, Amy says Adrian is adopted “because I can’t have kids on my own.” What Amy doesn’t tell Jenny (but Jenny and viewers of this movie find out later) is that Jenny is lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a violent woman named Judith (played by Laurie Catherine Winkel), who will eventually be seen looking for Amy and Adrian.

Amy doesn’t have a car, so she asks Jenny for a ride to the house where her father used to live. It’s also Amy’s childhood home. When Amy and Adrian settle into the house, Adrian asks her if Judith is looking for them. Amy tells Adrian that Amy never told Judith about this house, so it’s unlikely that Judith will find them there.

Why are Amy and Adrian going into hiding? Later in the movie, she happens to see Eric Zalinda, a guy she knew in high school. Eric had a big crush on Amy back then. And apparently, he still has feelings for her.

However, Eric finds out that Amy has been living openly as a lesbian since the last time he saw her. Amy shows him a knife scar that she says Judith gave to her during a fight that the couple had. Amy also confides in Eric that she and Adrian have gone into hiding from Judith.

But strange things start happening at Amy’s former childhood home. An unseen force keeps physically attacking her. And there’s pentagram drawn in chalk on the basement floor. Adrian randomly goes to the basement and lights some candles. But when he does, the basement door slams shut, and he can’t get out until Amy rescues him.

During this tension-filled stay in the house, Amy has flashbacks to her unhappy childhood. There’s a flashback scene where Amy is about 7 or 8 years old (played by Brinklee Wynn), and she is hit in the face by her mother (played by Meagan Flynn), who was apparently abusive to Amy on a regular basis. Another flashback also reveals that Amy’s father (played by John Thomson) went on trial for a crime that might or might not be detailed in the movie. Does Amy’s troubled family history have anything to do with why she seems to be attacked by a ghost?

Meanwhile, Judith is shown on the hunt for Amy and Adrian. Viewers will see how angry and menacing Judith can be in a scene where she’s at a gas station and two truckers (played by Chris Bylsma and Kurt Hanover) mistake Judith for a sex worker because they see her loitering around and going up to people. What Judith has actually been doing is showing people a photo of Amy and Adrian and asking if they’ve seen these two missing family members. Judith tells the truckers that she’s not a sex worker. However, one of the truckers is especially aggressive about propositioning Judith for sex, who shows how wrathful she can be.

“They Wait in the Dark” is bare-bones basic when it comes to visual effects. Some of the acting performances from the cast members are too over-the-top when the acting needed more subtle realism. At other times, the acting is too stiff when it needed to look more natural. Even with these flaws, it’s worth watching “They Wait in the Dark” until the very end, because the last 20 minutes have surprising revelations that make this horror movie fairly memorable and much more disturbing that it originally seems.

1091 Pictures released “They Wait in the Dark” on digital on February 7, 2023.

Review: ‘The Stylist,’ starring Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Millie Milan, Sarah McGuire and Davis DeRock

September 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Najarra Townsend in “The Stylist” (Photo courtesy of Method Media/Sixx Tape Productions)

“The Stylist”

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.

Brea Grant and Najarra Townsend in “The Stylist” (Photo courtesy of Method Media/Sixx Tape Productions)

“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” is that 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.

UPDATE: Arrow Video will release “The Stylist” for streaming on its website in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom on March 1, 2021. The movie’s VOD, digital and Blu-ray release date will be on June 8, 2021.

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