THE STYLIST – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Expanded from her 2016 genre fest circuit smash hit short film of the same name, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist is a film whose success lies in the fact that it’s ostensibly simple surface disguises a really fascinating thematic core. Horror is, as Gevargizian intuitively understands, meant to be fun: it can pack political punch, sure, but that impact hits all the harder when it’s embedded in good old fashioned horror film thrills. It’s the balance that makes The Stylist work: want a fun way to kill an hour and a half? Sure! Want something with a little more grunt and has something to say? It can do that too!

Like the earlier short, the eponymous stylist here is Claire (played in both films by Najarra Townsend). Shy, meek and clearly of a nervous disposition, what at first appears to be mere social jitters conceals a much more macabre reality: Claire’s way of escaping into a fantasy world where she can pretend to be other people involves her wearing the freshly scalped hair of her murdered clients. In an act of grotesque transformation, wearing these bloodied wigs allow her to indulge in a make-believe identity where she is suddenly someone else, smiling, beaming, and confident.

A stylist herself by trade, Gevargizian wrote what she knew and it pays off. The nature of Claire’s job means the lines between professional banter and more personal, intimate communication muddle her lonely, twisted mind even further, and when a bubbly client Olivia (Brea Grant) begs Claire to be the stylist for her wedding day, her warmth and welcoming nature make it impossible for Claire to say no.

Desperate for any kind of human connection, Claire takes clings with desperation to Olivia’s friendliness, relying on them with a manic urgency as signs of a truly deep, burgeoning friendship to fill the enormous cavern in her life that has left her isolated and psychologically disturbed to the point of extreme violence. As the wedding day moves closer, the tension rises as any expectation as to what path the volatile stylist might take on Olivia’s big day becomes increasingly unpredictable, even for Claire herself.

Along with Grant’s own recent directorial effort 12 Hour Shift, The Stylist sits amongst a small but hugely important collection of women-directed horror films that – while impressively diverse in tone, mood and subject – share at their collective core a fascination with women and invisible labor. This of course can, if you like, be seen as a kind of meta reflection of the far too long ignored history of women horror directors themselves, who – despite their work going back to the silent era – have only in recent decades had a very limited number make it into the popular imagination.

Those numbers, however, appear to be growing, helped in large part by films exactly like The Stylist which have reached an international audience, playing at the revered Sitges Film Festival in October 2020 amongst many other genre fests around the world. Making its way to streaming platforms and home entertainment in the next few months, the cult appeal of The Stylist will no doubt only continue to further establish Gevargizian as a really exciting emerging filmmaker to watch.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).