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Fantastic Fest Review: 'The Stylist' takes a lot off the top

Jill Gevargizian's 'The Stylist' takes the normalized act of trusting someone with scissors to snip around your neck and goes the horror route.

The perfect cut in 'The Stylist.'
(Image: © Sixx Tape Productions)

Our Verdict

'The Stylist' is a fashionable slasher that trades meakness for psychosis, and while the deception is appearances is manipulated well, a bit more care into character motivations would have gone a long way.

For

  • ✂️ Violently inclined.
  • ✂️ Najarra Townsend plays the part.

Against

  • ✂️ Underdeveloped killer scenario.
  • ✂️ Filler between deaths is light.

The Stylist shapes a feminine reimagining of Maniac. In specific, Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 remake, which trades gutter-slime sleaze for Elijah Wood's more damaged, emotionally “sympathetic” take on a deranged slasher. Salons are often associated with gossip, glamor, and girl-gang companionship; a sanctuary where women can escape patriarchal oppressions for some sassy, saucy in-chair banter. Writer and director Jill Gevargizian uses our preconceptions as a front for obsession and betrayal once hairdresser/client pleasantries twist into hazardous knots. A horror story about trusting strangers who we assume will exit our lives as quickly they entered, which is where Gevargizian makes a stronger case for her Maniac inspiration.

Najarra Townsend stars as clipper-queen Claire, quiet and polite on the outside, but inside, emptiness fuels her midnight hobby. After closing, should Claire be last to exit, she’ll drug her last appointment then scalp their locks. Claire wears her all-natural wigs as a way of becoming someone else, anyone else, since her self-hatred over social awkwardness has manifested with deadly consequences. Enter bride-to-be Olivia (Brea Grant), who needs an emergency trim not far from her wedding date. Claire saves the day and earns not only Olivia’s friendship, but an invite to Claire’s bachelorette shindig and nuptial ceremony. Is this speedy a friendship boost...normal?

Claire is an outsider whose interpersonal anxieties, coupled with sustained teenage trauma, have turned her into a killer. In the way Wood's Zito scalps sexual partners to capture eternal girlfriends, Claire summons gal-pals by swapping wigs (also displayed on mannequin heads). Townsend’s proper-and-timid exterior lulls audiences while her sheer psychopath’s appearance doesn’t mimic serial killer expectations, and her shattered performance aims to "justify" atrocious tendencies. Claire is disillusioned, self-punishing, and too far gone to maintain a basement hideout complete with an antique vanity covered in the evidence of countless deaths. Townsend’s performance never drifts into the overtly maniac, instead grounding her mental breakaways in little outbursts whenever she “embarrasses” herself, or “ruins” her few tastes of previously unattainable womanly companionship.

Translation? Najarra Townsend’s little-miss stabber performance is a highlight, played in a way that’s proper demented, but hidden behind the actress’ relatably anxious and jaded persona that’s wielded like hot air that melts away whatever safeguards Gevargizian’s narrative puts into place.

With Brea Grant’s introduction and her untamed disaster that needs fixing before wedding pictures are snapped, The Stylist hastens. Maybe too rapidly? Claire’s killing spree to that point targets cheating businesswomen, whoever's on the menu that night, which is put on hold when Olivia offers Claire something she’s seemingly struggled to attain: sisterhood besties. It’s difficult to justify how open and forthcoming Claire is with a hairstylist who was recommended by a coworker. Confessing big-day nerves about future husband Charlie (Davis DeRock), inviting Claire into intimate settings, all without vetting or years of ride-or-die history? Grant’s as bubbly and charming as ever, but Gevargizian’s command of plotted milestones feels off-balance. Noticeably enough, development takes a hit, and more generic “obsession” arcs speed into conflicts and climaxes.

That’s not to say The Stylist lacks tension or colorful violence. Gevargizian rides a crimson Giallo-vivid wave throughout Claire's piercing addiction, often using scissors to puncture her victims like pincushions. When shiny steel flays flesh, exposing gory tissue and skull tones, it’s a grisly sight that emphasizes grotesque effects less careful films, say Verotika, fail to execute. Claire’s slice-and-stab outbursts drench the otherwise mousy salon therapist in redness that serves but a taste of her rage, the monster inside. Yet, Townsend’s creepiest material comes via privacy invasions, like sneaking into Olivia’s room and “sampling” her vibrator. The way Townsend gives herself to Claire’s imposter playtime works best when showing desperation at its saddest. The executions, while glorified, sometimes feel motivationally forced.

It’s in exposition and backstory where The Stylist lacks lasting impressions. Claire’s fixation on a replayed voicemail undersells importance, while her killer’s mindset is hollow as she fantasizes about having friends, a family, or anything wholesome. Gevargizian’s expansion of her same-name short film struggles to fill in the blanks between benchmark horror portraits, still displaying the same nearsightedness in scripting just with more slashings. A common takeaway when upgrading smaller-scale projects to feature lengths, no exceptions here, as Claire rarely generates genuine empathy or more complicated moral standings beyond rudimentary starstruck-stalker architectures.

When The Stylist is at its most maddened, Jill Gevargizian shines the brightest behind a camera's lens (although her cameo sticks as well). Character designs don’t always strike the same impression as Claire’s handiwork with sharpened edges. As Gevargizian’s “monster” finds herself a victim of society, of circumstance, every nudge that pushes Claire closer to the brink feels a smidge more forced. Luckily, Najarra Townsend’s most memorable deliveries appear when Clarie’s sanity stretches thinnest. A huntress in a beautician’s smock, a dreamer of lives more ordinary. Familiar horror narratives about trustworthiness gone afoul. While the presentation isn’t exceptionally textured or layered, one can still appreciate the chic repackaging of this too-much-off-the-top thriller.