There’s a silent pact we make when we sit in a salon chair. What happens in this chair stays in this chair. The bond of intimacy between a stylist and their customer is almost sacred. We tell our stylists things we might not tell anyone else. That chair is essentially a confessional. It’s easy, by the end of the session, to feel a kinship with that other person. Like secrets have passed between you that no one else will ever know.
But what happens when the relationship between stylist and subject gets a little too friendly? And what happens with the stylist is someone with a loose grip on reality, who sees her clients—and the other women in her life—as trophies instead of humans? Well, then you have a movie like The Stylist, the feature film debut of writer/director Jill Gevargizian. The movie is based on her short film of the same name, about a psychopathic hairstylist whose complicated inner world clashes violently with her daily life and occupation.
In The Stylist, we learn more about this woman. Her name is Claire (Najarra Townsend). She’s a shy hairstylist who orders the same chai latte every day. Familiar to those in her small daily orbit, she struggles to make lasting relationships. We don’t know too much about Claire, except that she never knew her father and her mother died when she was a teen. But the less we know, the better we can fill in the blanks with our own imaginations—and there’s plenty to fill in. Like why, for example, Claire has a habit of scalping her clients and wearing their hair, as if she’s trying on their personalities.
“We always want what we don’t have,” one client says to Claire early on; it’s a line explaining her psyche in simple terms. This is a woman so off the proverbial grid that she doesn’t seem to see how deranged or backwards her practices are. And things only get more complicated when one of her favorite clients Olivia (Brea Grant) begs Claire to do her hair for her upcoming wedding. Claire usually says no to weddings, but she relents for Olivia, and the two forge something of a friendship. But Olivia doesn’t know what we know about Claire, and the tension ratchets up the closer the two get—and the more off-kilter Claire grows.
The Stylist played at this year’s Fantastic Fest, and it’s hard to think of a better pairing between movie and festival. It’s emblematic of everything that makes Fantastic Fest such a wonderful celebration of genre. It’s beautifully filmed, with pops of triumphant color and gore. And it feels like the birth of a new horror superstar in Gevargizian. This is a bold first feature with an appropriately sleazy vibe; it calls back to erotic thrillers with a decidedly modern feel. Claire is a villain, but she’s also relatable, and it’s in this dichotomy where the true horror lays. Gevargizian knows this. She wields the characterization of Claire like a weapon. And it’s a damn good time.
The Stylist is one of those movies that makes you love the horror genre. It feels fresh and new, but in tribute to its references. It’s shocking, but the tension plays out slowly and knowingly; you cringe knowing what’s about to happen so many times, but it’s because Gevargizian did such a fine job tuning the instrument before that blast. And it has a killer ending, a stunning and grotesque sequence that’s forever seared into my mind. What more could you possibly want?
Featured Image: Fantastic Fest