NOTE: Here is my review from Soda & Telepaths that was posted back on March 2, 2021
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a shy young hairstylist who spends her days giving other people a chance to feel good about themselves, something that Claire has seemingly never had about herself. She will often find herself imagining what life must be like as some of her clients who appear to lead such perfect lives… and when imagining doesn’t do the job, she’ll drug them, scalp them, wear the scalp in place of a wig and use that to help her pretend that her life is as glamorous as those she helps.
When new young bride Olivia (Brea Grant) comes to her salon to prepare for her wedding, Claire tries so hard to give up her scalping habit but soon discovers just how hard it actually is to suppress something so powerful, in fact trying to suppress it might have actually made things so much worse for everyone around Claire.
The Stylist, based on the short film of the same name, has Jill Gevargizian taking the simple idea of a hairstylist who scalps people and turned it into one of the most gut-wrenching films in recent years. What makes it so intense isn’t the violence or gore, it’s stunningly tame in that regard for a film where scalping is a regular occurrence. No, what makes this film intense is the character of Claire, a character who is so sympathetic that you only want her to stop killing because you can see that it’s hurting her so much to keep doing it.
It’s a genuinely risky move, some might say insane, to try and make the killer in your horror movie someone who is a likable character the audience can sympathise with but The Stylist is just that insane. I can’t even decide if Claire is the antagonist, you can tell throughout the film that there isn’t an ounce of malice in the character and that makes her a fascinating person to follow.
A lot of this is just down to the obscenely perfect performance by Najarra Townsend who manages to have a constant deer in the headlights look that makes you just want to hug her and tell her everything will be OK, provided you first make sure there are no sharp objects around.
The moments of quiet are, admittedly, so quiet that I was curious if my speakers weren’t working and yet it still kept my attention with the glorious visuals The Stylist uses. This is a director who knows how they want their film to look and isn’t afraid to go full Argento with the strange colours in the lighting or in the perfectly framed shots that say more than any words ever could. The Stylist is the kind of horror film that you could just stare at with a blissful smile because it’s so pretty… until a scalp is being torn from a head, that’s less pretty but still a great visual trick.
You can kind of tell that The Stylist started as a short film, the slow parts I mention reek of desperate padding to hit the 90-minute runtime needed to make this a feature film and I do wish there was a little more in the middle to really capture the audience but even though it’s obvious padding, it’s good padding. I never really got bored by what was clearly added to this story, but I could also tell where they were just adding scenes for the heck of it.
The added scenes really don’t do much beyond just give us a little more time with Claire, but we don’t really get to know more about her. Sure, they are compelling because this is one of those incredible performances you can’t look away from but I can’t really say that I gained any new insight into this character, why she’s like this or what began this scalping obsession.
Maybe if that time had let me get to know why this was happening that’d help, as it is, we know she’s a messed up girl who likes to collect scalps by the time the opening titles roll and after that, it’s just reinforcing that central idea… it’s reinforcing it in a compelling way, but it’s still just reinforcing it.
The Stylist is a genuinely fascinating film, a promising feature debut by its writer/director who clearly has enough skill that if someone like Shudder were to be smart and bankroll her next film, we’d get some pretty great horror out of it. Sure the middle of this film is a little slow and I would’ve loved to know more about this main character (sequel?) but for what it is, it’s a compelling horror film that’ll have you feeling more than a little emotionally scalped.