One of the most universal horrors is the daunting task of making new friends as an adult. It’s a feat that can fill even the most extroverted social butterfly with existential dread. This common fear is the through-line of Jill Gevargizian’s female-led slasher, The Stylist, which is now streaming exclusively on ARROW.
The Stylist puts the audience in the stylish shoes of Claire (Najarra Townsend), a reclusive hairdresser who has a sinister habit of scalping her clients so that she can live vicariously through their follicles. A hairdresser does happen to be the perfect cover for a serial killer. We tend to tell them all our juiciest gossip without thinking, they hold the key to our vanity, and they’re professionally obligated to be quite handy with a blade. Social smoking might be a more common vice when it comes to making new friends. However, that wouldn’t add the same layer of dread when bride-to-be Olivia (Brea Grant) needs Claire to save the big day with some emergency hairdressing, and Claire’s new obsession begins.
It would be easy to write The Stylist off as another run-of-the-mill slasher. It has all the tropes we’ve come to expect, and a lot of the story beats will feel familiar to even the more casual fan of the genre. The film’s ending feels like it’s been done before, and better. However, The Stylist does stand on its own legs when Gevargizan is exploring the psyche of Claire and Olivia. The characters are devilishly different from each other. Claire is methodical, habitual, and knotted with anxiety. Olivia, on the other hand, is much more chaotic and leaves things to chance. It’s like The Odd Couple if it was run through the grindhouse. The two characters don’t share much screen time, but this limited exposure to each other is used well, and both leads show excellent chemistry. The film is ultimately exploring Claire’s envy for Olivia’s seemingly perfect existence. Olivia is getting married and is surrounded by a cast of loyal bridesmaids and a doting fiancée. Claire has none of this, but desperately wants it – and if she can’t have it, she’ll have to settle for wearing someone’s scalp as a wig. That’s what makes it so disappointing when the film starts to hint that Claire has a romantic interest in Olivia. A story about our obsession with what others have and how far we’ll go to escape our own loneliness is not nearly as impactful when it’s cheapened by one hugely unnecessary addition to an otherwise important plot point.
The Stylist shines brightest in two respects. Firstly, it has an unflinching approach to Claire’s unique take on hair removal. It is established incredibly early how brutal Claire is as a killer, with unedited, lingering shots giving you every detail of the scalping. The Stylist has effortlessly entered a pair of hairdresser’s scissors into the pantheon of great slasher weapons. Secondly, the film excels in exploring the humanity of Claire. While her acts may be heinous, they all come from a place of loneliness. We get to see her struggling with the same difficulties as the rest of us, and this is executed with pitch-black humour that strikes all the right notes. In one scene, Claire is silently panicking in front of a huge wall of supermarket wine, not knowing which to buy. Spliced in with the overall dread of the film, this is a refreshing take on common anxieties. All of Claire’s motivation comes from wanting Olivia’s life. She even boards up her cellar of scalps to try and do it honestly, and it’s this overarching theme of jealousy towards our peers that permeates through The Stylist. This is when it’s the most engaging to watch. All of this is enhanced by Najarra Townsend’s expertly crafted performance as Claire. Unfortunately, there is not nearly enough time spent exploring these two elements.
The strengths present will keep you hooked for the duration of the film, but you might be caught checking the clock in between these moments. The Stylist spends a lot of its time examining the characters and building suspense, and it does so well. The issue is that once it has these well-rounded characters and a sense of impending dread, it doesn’t go anywhere with it. Both Claire and Olivia never really expand beyond their initial motivations of murder or marriage. What could have been an interesting look into Claire trying to change her ways, unfortunately, became an ongoing repetition of the same themes from earlier in the film. No-one in The Stylist seems to learn anything from their experiences, which defeats the point of all the excellent character development being put in. Nonetheless, this character work is amazingly effective when put in tandem with the exceptional use of gore and practical effects. There’s not enough scalping in horror, and The Stylist’s desire to show every detail is a welcome one – there just isn’t enough of it to sustain the film.
While it does suffer from the common indie horror problem of overly unnatural lighting (in that every street scene has been lit like a nightclub), there is still some impressive cinematography and design on show. Every shot is wonderfully framed, and the use of split-screen to show the differences in Claire and Olivia’s life is a breath of fresh air compared to the tools usually used for a stalker film. The Stylist also uses its visual language to give us a better look into the mind of Claire, with peaceful, ethereal montages of her cutting hair to let us know she’s in the zone. Equally brilliant is the scene dressing of the cluttered and vast cellar she keeps her trophies in. These risks don’t always pay off, but when they hit, they’re worth every miss ten times over.
Overall, The Stylist is fine. It’s not going to win any awards for ingenuity. Seasoned horror fans will be able to spot every twist and turn the story takes, although it will still leave you guessing if it’s going to go where you assume. The great shame is that it has all the makings of a film that should be much more than simply fine. It has an emotional maturity and a gripping visual language that feels like it should be head and shoulders above its contemporaries. However, its plodding pace, desperate need of a trim (get it?), and its inability to choose between character drama or visceral violence hold it back.
You can now watch The Stylist exclusively on Arrow Video’s streaming service, ARROW.