Not all short films can be improved upon by expansion in to feature length–The Stylist is proof that some, undeniably, can. Director Jill Gevargizian debuted her short film of the same name in 2016, and now she is back with the full story. As this appears to be a continuation of the short film, we catch up with Claire (Najarra Townsend) working late at the salon and doing what many hairdressers do, acting a bit as a therapist as her client spills her secrets. Claire drugs her wine and ultimately scalps her in an effort, it seems, to try on someone else’s life for a while. In a basement, surrounded by her trophies, we learn that Claire has been at this for a while.
The Stylist, as a title, does not just set us up for Claire’s job, but this film is also…well, very stylish! The sets and costumes are meticulously curated in ways that tell us, at a glance, volumes about the characters that inhabit them. Gevargizian wears her directorial influences on her sleeve. Not only are there shots and techniques that are not uncommon nods to noted horror directors like Hitchcock and De Palma, the design and the slightly out of another time wardrobe choices for Claire subtly bring in the quirkiness of Wes Anderson films. As a directorial debut, this is an interesting start and I’m excited to see how Gevargizian continues to define her own voice in future work.
It’s not hard to feel for, and even identify with, the lonely, shy, socially awkward Claire. Many of us have been there. She spends a lot of time overthinking text messages and reeling from interactions that she has made uncomfortable. Townsend’s portrayal of Claire is cleverly understated, and she plays much of what she is feeling not with dialog but with her face. We feel like we know the character intimately but simultaneously not at all. The other cast highlight, of course, is Brea Grant as Olivia, Claire’s client who is at crunch time with a wedding just around the corner. Grant has just the right charisma to pull off this character who is kind to Claire, but also too busy for her bullshit. The two women are opposites when it comes to confidence and social skills, and its easy to see why Claire would gravitate towards Olivia’s light.
Although The Stylist leaps into the slasher realm with a kill right off the bat, it settles into what is really a psychological thriller. While the pacing definitely achieves a building of tension, it more importantly feels like a device to let us get to know our killer. We find Claire trying to restrain herself, to deny her murderous impulses, as the pace itself becomes restrained and methodical. We are never given Claire’s full backstory or even when she started this macabre collection of scalps, but we do begin to understand her motivations and her triggers.
The writing team of Gevargizian, Eric Havens and Eric Stolze have carefully crafted a story that manages to give us a serial killer we almost feel bad for but who is never someone we can truly root for. Claire’s clingy neediness begins to grate on the viewer as it does with Olivia. Character development and taking time to build dread can be a bit of tightrope walk and there are areas were the pace lags a bit. Some of the sequences following Claire from day to day get a little redundant and it feels like the point could be made with less. Ultimately the film pays off and gives horror a grisly new serial killer to love and fear.
The Stylist played at Panic Fest 2021 and can also be viewed the Arrow app.