The Stylist, directed by Jill Gevargizian, has a long history with FrightFest audiences. The feature initially started out as a short film that screened at the festival back in 2016. Then last year during the event’s 20th Anniversary, Gevargizian launched a Kickstarter funding initiative for a full-length feature iteration of the story. Now, just over a year later, this new and extended version of The Stylist graced FrightFest’s digital screen.
As with the short, The Stylist once again joins hair stylist Claire (once again played by Najarra Townsend), whose clients occasionally wind up dead. Claire is a lonely young woman and finds herself easily drawn into the lives of her clients. Usually content to live vicariously through their stories and revelations, every now and then someone pops up that attracts her curiosity that little bit more, and before you know it, their scalp is on display in her basement shrine. This time around, it’s long-term client, Olivia (Brea Grant), that suddenly catches Claire’s fascination when she’s drafted in at the last minute to provide emergency hair assistance for Olivia’s forthcoming wedding. As Claire begins to get more involved with Olivia’s world, the compulsion to kill once more begins to take over. Can Claire fight her dark urges, or will Olivia be the next addition to her personal museum of the macabre?
Najarra Townsend makes for an exceptionally compelling lead. She’s lived with her character of Claire for a number of years, and in that time has honed her connection and interpretation of the role. Her portrayal of Claire is quietly understated, she’s a desperately shy, timid, and unsettled creature from the moment we see her. On the surface she comes across as personable, a necessity in her working job, but from the first scene there is the odd line that feels artificial coming from her lips. She’s clearly a woman desperate to mask her own pain and trauma, and as hard as she tries to appear ‘normal’, she always comes off slightly strange. It’s brilliant work from Townsend, but this is only a fraction of her performance. As the story progresses, Claire battles her desire to add more people to her collection, believing that she may have finally found an ally in Olivia. This conflict of feelings is masterfully brought to life by Townsend; she manages to keep Claire’s spiral grounded, only fleetingly reaching melodramatic heights.
It’s not just Townsend’s performance that tells Claire’s story, the costume also works really well to communicate little details. For example, when we first meet Claire, she mainly wears dresses in yellow hues. As Claire’s mental instability starts to kick in, the colours of her clothing begin to morph into more pinks and reds. This change of tones visually signifies her becoming more dangerous, unhinged, and out of control. Even the choice of footwear conveys more than one would think. Claire is almost always clad in an overtly feminine, luscious, pretty dress and yet her choice of footwear is big bulky boots. Other filmmakers would have pushed the stylised femininity to the limits and forced the character into stilettos, but Gevargizian holds back in favour of using this choice as another way to demonstrate Claire’s strangeness. It reinforces that on the surface, or on top as it is with the costume, Claire fits in, but look beneath and you realise there’s a contrasting nature that she is hiding. It’s almost a subconscious choice of shoe from Claire, and we all know our subconscious is where the real truths lie. She’s not exclusively in boots, but the moments in heels align with Claire trying her hardest to impress Olivia and so it makes sense that in these moments she would be more aware and less likely to let her subconscious take over.
In stark contrast to Townsend’s tightly wound anxiety-fuelled Claire, is Brea Grant as Olivia. Olivia is a high-powered modern career woman and it’s very easy to see why she captures Claire’s attention. She has a good job, money, nice clothes, gorgeous home, and loving partner who she is about to wed; so basically everything Claire yearns for. Grant plays Olivia with a fun and infectious extroverted confident energy, which pairs perfectly with Claire’s serious and introverted demeanour. They’re the ultimate odd couple, and are a pairing that could be displaced into any number of other genres and still retain the same fantastic chemistry. Olivia isn’t just one note though, Gevargizian gifts her with a depth and complexity not often seen within this type of film.
Those that have seen the short will recognise aspects of the opening, the first fifteen or so minutes being a reworking of the popular video. It works as both a nice refresher for those that have seen the origin, and as an eye-catching introduction to those with no prior knowledge of the piece. It sets the film up perfectly and gives the bloodthirsty an instant fix, something they may need as, despite its gory opener, The Stylist is considerably restrained in its bloodshed. Much more of a study of the human psyche rather than an all out bloodbath, The Stylist won’t please everyone’s tastes, but those that get Gevargizian’s vision, will love it.
A film that is inherently feminine, The Stylist utilises everything in its arsenal to offer a thoughtful and provocative study of facing one’s demons. If you are a fan of the short then you’re sure to love The Stylist. Najarra Townsend gives a spellbinding performance, with Brea Grant once again proving that she’s one of the most consistent actors working in the genre. Killer performances, sticky scalpings, and costumes to die for, make this a wickedly crafted portrait of a serial killer.
Inherently feminine, gorgeously shot and styled, and led from the front with well-formed performances, The Stylist offers potentially one of the most seductive portraits of a serial killer ever.
This review was first published on THN. The Stylist is available on Digital HD and Blu-ray now.