A Celebration of Fantastic Fest 2020: THE STYLIST

Jill Gervargizian’s The Stylist, which is screened “virtually” as part of the Celebration of Fantastic Fest starts off with a late night appointment between a stylist and an out of town, last minute “Karen”. The awkward dance of customer and client, which ends in a grisly murder, works to establish the tempo of the stylist, and the dilemma of our somewhat sympathetic serial killer protagonist. Like any other customer service oriented job, stylists are expected to forever be that cheerful best friend, who while sharing a level of intimacy, are forever kept at arm’s length. It’s this dichotomy that fuels the fracture at the heart of Claire (Najarra Townsend), the small town hairdresser who seemingly just wants to connect with another human being, but just can’t stop murdering them in the process.

When Claire’s messaged by a regular, Olivia (Brea Grant), looking for a last minute replacement after her wedding hairdresser flakes out, her gratitude is twisted by Claire’s mind who’s not socially equipped to handle this scenario properly. Claire goes full on Single White Female here, as she is awkwardly brought into Olivia’s inner circle and almost instantly makes her kind host regret it. This social minefield is contrasted by Claire’s complete and total bloodlust that’s reminiscent of William Lustig’s Maniac. Claire’s particular MO is also scalping her victims, after doing their hair – of course. She then uses their scalps to inhabit her victims’ psyches. It’s this duality of the narrative that delivers a nuanced feminist slasher, that is just as invested in the psychology of the killer as well as delivering the gory kills.

Along with the emotional weight, Gervargizian is very clear that while beautiful, Claire is not played as confident or sexy, as the viewer would probably predict given the genre. Like a female Patrick Bateman, her immaculate appearance is simply a layer of camouflage used to mask herself when mingling with possible prey. The Stylist is an uncomfortable slow burn, that relies heavily on the performance of its lead to communicate with the audience her constant struggle with her innermost demons and impulses. It’s something that threw me off at first, because there’s an awkwardness to the performance that, while definitely intentional, could have very easily come off as campy or ham fisted in lesser hands. But Townsend keeps it reined in just enough to keep the audience vested in the serial killer only to pull the rug out in the film’s final moments, when Gervargizian manages to stick a nearly impossible landing delivering a very truly satisfying send off for Claire.

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