There are lots of ways to flip the slasher on its head, making it meta, making it comedy, telling it out of order, and making the slasher the protagonist. The Stylist, which premiered at Fantastic Fest, makes the slasher the protagonist, but that’s not what makes it special. It’s special because it is incredibly femme.
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a successful hairstylist with a nasty habit; she tends to kill her clients and rip their hair off by scalp to try their personas on for size. Stressed, lonely, and envious of the women who grace her chair, Claire sees in them versions of herself she is too shy to embody. When her client, Olivia (Brea Grant) begs her to do her hair for her upcoming wedding, Claire finds herself becoming increasingly enamored by Olivia and her life and Claire’s envy and affection become dangerous. As Claire becomes more obsessed with Olivia, Olivia struggles to keep her at arms length while she unravels into a big ball of hair.
This is a first feature from writer/ director Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian who adapted this from her short by the same name. Gevargizian is a stylist herself and her life experience feels splattered all over this film in more ways than one. Sure, it has Psycho in its DNA (with Claire literally wearing her victims’ skin) and smells like Single White Female, but Gevargizian’s sensibilities, if I may be so bold as to assume, are in the experiences of Claire as a woman. The story hinges on moments of Claire nervously holding her phone while typing messages that look excited filled with “yay”s and “!!!”s. Claire and Olivia speak a language reserved for women with casual use of “down and wavy.” They bond over hair, bridal things, wine and dresses. In a scene at a bachelorette party, the buzzed women clang glasses, spilling red liquid on the yellow silk dress that Claire selected after a painstaking tour through her wardrobe and it’s shot like it’s a major conflict. No, I don’t see myself in a psycho killer who hacks off scalps with hair scissors, but I see myself in the angst of a woman surrounded by the types of women you hope to be friends with, that you nervously want to impress as you sink back into latent social anxiety.
As a slasher, The Stylist is incredibly strong. Aside from giving us a killer protagonist, it uses multiple techniques to bring the scares. A personal favourite scare is when a killer is meticulous and casually focused about a kill, and Claire’s opening life ender is perfect. She casually stages her tools, no element of fear or angst, then purses her lips in focus while slicing through skin with a pair of hair scissors. It’s a fucking fright and sets the tone of the scares immediately, and showcases how calm Claire is during a kill versus how anxious she is doing most anything else. Angles and sound are used to make banal things like conditioning hair and selecting a bottle of wine look scary, creating a sense of unease which makes Claire’s normal life into a horror. Though the practical effects are stunning, the star of the show is the sound. That first peel back of the locks of hair from her first on screen victim is revolting and what a way to get the ball rolling. The smaller moments where sound is used well are on par with Edgar Wright should he ever make a straight slasher.
The cliches in the film feel intentional, and almost lean into camp. For instance, Claire hearing the women poke fun at her from inside a bathroom stall, and Olivia being a high-powered woman at a magazine all feel like female centric cliches intentionally jammed into a backwards horror movie.
Gevargizian’s feature is terrifying and moody and dares us to sympathize with a psycho killer whose feminine social angst feels all to relatable. I always hope to see more of myself in films, especially if it’s this gruesome.