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{Panic Fest 2021} ‘The Stylist’ Gets What it Deserves

Fantastic Fest lives again and this time its personal. Jill Gevargizian is horror royalty where I am from. The Kansas City queen of horror announced early last year that she was sick of waiting for the right time, or for funding, or for the stars to align to make her movie. She was doing it now come hell or highwater. Her kickstarter gathered steam, support, and money and now we have the full length version of the horror short that helped launch the career. Welcome to the one hour and forty five version of The Stylist, which contains more wit, heart, and emotion than we deserve.

The Stylist will surely be in a number of critics top tens. It showcases the talent of the creative artists who have put it together and the city in which most of these creative people live. Its a triumph that the movie happened. The fact that it is so good brightens a bleak as hell year.

The Stylist introduces us to serial killer Claire (Najarra Townsend) who finds her victims in the beauty salon where she works. Claire cuts their hair, drugs them, and then removes their scalps to be worn later. There is an earnestness to Claire as she completes her task. Starting from the conversation Claire has with her first client, everything about the setting, the writing, and the character feels genuine. We get how stylists must feel a bit like bartenders. They are the curl clergy to the hairpiece penitent. It also makes Claire’s ability to hold onto her sanity even more difficult. When she is neither quite a professional, nor quite a friend it is just one more way Claire doesn’t necessarily fit in with society. Townsend captures this sadness so completely we can’t help feel bad for our scalp wearing serial killer. Introduce Olivia (Brea Grant) who tries to befriend Claire but only in the context of hairdresser first. Grant is the consummate professional and tackles this role with the confidence and clarity of a true leading lady. She comes across as someone who wants to be kind but only from afar. Her aloofness towards Claire (especially in the third act) feels like a real response we all might have and never comes across as mean or callous, which it easily could have.

Photo Courtesy of Sixx Tape Productions

The movie was shot in and around Kansas City which makes scenes like the party scene (looking at you Record Bar) even more special for folks from the city. There is an affection for the characters, for the city, and for hair stylists in general that permeates all of the movie. The role that mirrors play throughout the film (there are a lot of scenes that feature them) help highlight the duality of Claire as a serial killer but also highlight the dual roles she plays with her clients. Mirrors also act as way for everyone to reflect on themselves. I can’t help but think director Jill Sixx looked into a mirror before launching the kickstarter and told herself she was making this fucking movie no matter what.

It is not a perfect movie as the ending felt a bit rushed and the final reveal felt a bit hurried but those are nits to be picked. This movie is good because of everything it goes for and goes through. Mostly though this is a movie about female relationships in and around female spaces and that is part of what makes the movie unique and Gervargizian so special. The combination of actresses and director feels REAL special and hopefully won’t be the last time they all work together.

The Stylist is unabashedly a horror movie. Jill Gevargizian unabashedly loves the horror genre and it shows. One shot in particular allows a sliver of light to brighten Claire’s eyes and one can’t help but associate that scene with Hitchcock’s own use of the same technique in Psycho (Jill Gevargizian also makes her own cameo not unlike Hitchcock). Claire is goddamned terrifying and the fact the narrative follows her point of view gives it a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer vibe (without all of the rapey gross stuff that makes the movie difficult to watch). There are some fun gory scenes. A scene where one of Claire’s victims wakes up midscalping is particularly rad and gruesome. The Stylist is flat out scary. Claire is a nuanced but frighteningly sympathetic protagonist/villain that I want to see more of.

When the movie is laid bare (not unlike the skull of the above victim) The Stylist is about trying to fit into a society that doesn’t fully respect you or what you do. As a horror fan, I get it. As a teacher I REALLY GET IT. Teachers tend to exist in that liminal same space. It’s easy to use us and then dismiss us. For Jill, for Claire, for all of us, waiting to be respected seems a fools errand. So we do what we have to do. Jill made her movie. Claire gathered some scalps, and the city will celebrate a hell of a movie. Maybe it is a good lesson for us all to learn.