The Movie Waffler New to Shudder - THE STYLIST | The Movie Waffler

New to Shudder - THE STYLIST

the stylist review
A lonely, homicidal hair-stylist becomes obsessed with a client.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jill Gevargizian

Starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Millie Milan, Sarah McGuire, Jennifer Seward-DeRock

the stylist poster

When it comes to garnering our sympathy for an antagonist, horror has an advantage over other genres. We expect the villain of a horror movie to commit all manner of reprehensible atrocities, so any little touch of humanity can be enough to get us on their side. Combine this with a sort of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome that tends to set in if we spend enough time with a villain, and we often find ourselves empathising and dare I say, rooting for the villains of the horror genre. The first audiences to see Psycho likely felt sorry for Norman Bates because they didn't realise he was the killer, but subsequently most of us know this detail the first time we watch Hitchcock's thriller, yet don't we all feel sorry for poor Norman when he's being interrogated by Arbogast, even though we watched him brutally butcher poor Marion Crane?

An expansion of her earlier short, director Jill Gevargizian's feature debut The Stylist boasts one of the most demented antagonists of recent horror movies, but also one of the most sympathetic. While lonely hair-stylist Claire (an excellent and endearing Najarra Townsend) is indeed the movie's antagonist, she's also its protagonist, the character we spend most time with, and through whose eyes we see the world. Five minutes into The Stylist and we've witnessed Claire drug a client before scalping her and adding the "wig" to the growing collection she keeps in the basement of the home she inherited when her mother passed away. Yet an hour later, when Claire is hiding behind the shower curtain of a woman she intended to murder, our nails are digging into our palms as we're desperate for her to evade capture.

the stylist review

Stories of urban alienation have largely centred around male protagonists, but a female perspective on this has been ripe for examination for quite some time. It's far easier for a young woman to fall into the trap of social isolation than for her male equivalent. If a bloke asks another bloke out for a few drinks, it's pretty cut and dried - you just go out and get drunk together. But when a woman asks a woman out it comes with extra pressures - what to wear, what wine to choose, what the trendiest club at the moment is - essentially all the stress of a date but without the potential for sex.

The label "social horror" has been co-opted to apply to films that deal with themes of social justice, but it's perhaps more befitting a movie like The Stylist, which deals with the horrors of socialising, the struggles of fitting in. As Claire explains to a client, she enjoys being a hair-stylist because it allows her to meet lots of new people, but we quickly learn that Claire is deeply lonely, stunted by cripplingly low self-esteem. Gevargizian and Townsend express this in subtle fashion, like how Claire does her best to hide behind her hair, or how she looks with jealousy at the women who confidently stride past her in the street. When Claire appears to make a friend in Olivia (indie horror staple Brea Grant), a bubbly client who hires her to take care of her hair for her impending wedding, it seems things may be looking up for her. But in one smash cut we see Claire stood frozen in front of a wall of wines in an off licence, terror strewn across her face as she worries about making a bad impression on her potential new buddy.

the stylist review

Once Claire is taken under the wing of Olivia, The Stylist follows the path of a typical stalker film, but what sets it apart is the level of empathy the film has for its sympathetic sicko. We genuinely want Claire to find her place in the world, and for a while it seems like she might be on the right path, locking up her basement and throwing away the key. But Claire has become addicted to her murderous ways, and like most addicts it's only a matter of time before she falls off the wagon. Watching her wrench open the shuttered basement as she admits defeat is a moment of sheer tragedy, akin to Travis Bickle sabotaging his date with Betsy. Gevargizian and Townsend manage to pull off here what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix failed to with Joker, giving us a damaged, lonely sociopath who might have been saved had society paid them attention, and making us fully sympathise with their troubles.

The Stylist owes much to William Lustig's 1980 thriller Maniac. Like that movie it gives us a protagonist/antagonist who scalps their female victims before attaching the scalps to mannequins. Both Townsend's Claire and Joe Spinell's Frank seem haunted by the deaths of their mothers, and of course both come close to finding a sense of normality upon meeting a woman who initially at least, seems willing to overlook their awkwardness. The gendered violence of Maniac made it nigh on impossible to empathise with the burly Frank however, a problem erased by The Stylist's mousy female antagonist. None of Claire's victims deserve their fate, but the fact that they're largely an unlikeable bunch of snobs and judgemental bitches makes it easier for us to stay on Claire's side.

the stylist review

Gevargizian's film isn't just an impressive debut as a character study - it's also visually striking. Where Lustig exploited the scuzziness of bankruptcy era NYC, Gevargizian sets her grizzliness against the pretty backdrop of an anonymously middle class modern North American city. Her movie is filled with colour, at times resembling a Minnelli musical with its abundant yellows, and along with cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern, she employs colour to create an almost comic book effect, splitting up the frame into panels with clever lighting. In what feels like a nod to De Palma, there's a wonderful split-screen moment that uses the technique in the best possible way, pulling Claire and Olivia together and ending with a nice reveal that instantly transforms what we thought was a psychological connection into geographical proximity.

On paper, there's not much to distinguish The Stylist from a hundred other stalk and slash movies. But most of the best horror movies take a very simple, even well-worn premise and enliven it with a combination of a creator's personal vision, a gripping central performance and an understanding of the technical tricks that make the genre tick. The Stylist checks all these boxes, and I'll certainly be booking an appointment with Gevargizian in the future.

The Stylist
 is on Shudder UK now.