The Stylist Portrays Violence Born From Isolation

There’s an oddly specific sub-genre of horror that I’m not sure has a name, but it is well populated. Movies about serial killers trying to connect with “normal” people are plentiful, and they vary wildly in quality. For my money, the best one I’ve seen is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for its unflinching brutality and outstanding performance by Michael Rooker, who really does feel like a heartless monster wearing a human’s skin. For me, it’s an interesting sub-genre, in theory more than in practice, because unless it can nail the tricky act of creating a compelling main character, movies in this sub-genre can feel contrived. The Stylist is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Claire wears the scalp of someone with short dark hair and smiles in a mirror

While it undoubtedly owes a lot to Henry and the original Basket Case, The Stylist decidedly channels both versions of Maniac more than anything else. We learn in the very first scene that Claire, the eponymous stylist and a seemingly normal person, has a fascination with hearing the stories of her clients, and she will often murder them by drugging their wine and taking their scalps so she can wear them at home and pretend to live in their shoes for a few moments. This is all conveyed in the first fifteen or so minutes, with her murdering a traveling graphic designer and imitating her while wearing her scalp in front of a mirror. We also get the only bit of character development for Claire from this scene—she breaks down when she realizes she is failing to act like her victim.

Claire is played well by Najarra Townsend, who is entirely convincing in the role of someone who is incapable of understanding human emotion. In most scenes, she seems lost, confused by the situations she’s in (like when she’s invited out to a club), and we come to learn that her violent murders are essentially her way of expressing herself. It makes the scenes where she does emote more effective. In the hands of a lesser actress, Claire could have come across as a one-note character, but in Townsend’s hands, she feels real, which makes her violent actions more disturbing.

The central character is effective, if underdeveloped. She mysteriously lives in a pretty large house, and as far as I can tell, it’s quite old. How she’s able to afford living there on a hair stylist’s wage is beyond me (although it’s totally possible that they make more than I think—I’m not attempting to career shame here, I just genuinely don’t know). She mentions a few times to different people that it must be nice being close and connected with their family, so maybe she herself had some falling out in the past with her own. But the fact of the matter is that the movie doesn’t shed much light on why Claire is the way she is. Maybe the 2016 short film of the same name sheds some light on her backstory, and of course, having an ambiguous background for a violent character can work. In this particular instance, I wanted just a little bit more about Claire’s personal history.

The central plot focuses on Claire’s growing obsession with one of her clients, Olivia, who is to be married in just a few weeks’ time. Claire initially says she doesn’t do weddings but eventually agrees to do a mockup of potential hairstyles for the ceremony. It’s here that she learns more and more about Olivia and her seemingly happy life. She becomes envious but restrains herself from taking Olivia’s scalp since she is one of her regulars. She even attempts to literally lock away the room where she keeps her trophies, but of course, then the movie couldn’t happen.

Claire does Olivia's hair in a mirror

I think the plot could have had more of an impact if the pacing had been tightened up slightly. At 103 minutes, the movie feels slightly long in the tooth at times. It’s all shot very well, with lots of gorgeous looking scenes with natural, rich lighting, but I don’t know that the development we receive from Claire and Olivia’s life can necessarily carry that runtime. If it had been trimmed to, say, a solid 85-90 minutes, it could have stuck the landing a bit more effectively.

This is, of course, personal taste. I can see a lot of people latching on to The Stylist for its uniqueness in being a serial killer thriller focused on females. And even though I had problems with the pacing, I could see others being taken in by the socially isolated mood the movie conveys. It’s all very art housey, almost feeling like a hangout movie at times—a hangout movie where you’re spending time with a violent killer, but a hangout movie nonetheless.

There have been plenty of movies about killers trying to regain their humanity, and The Stylist joins their ranks, delivering a flawed but promising debut feature from director Jill Gevargizian. It’s a touch slow, and I could have done with more in the way of back story from its central character, but it is still an interesting presentation of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Townsend’s central performance carries the movie, fleshing out what is ultimately a somewhat underwritten character. It’s not quite as good as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and it doesn’t have anywhere near as much make-your-skin-crawl sleaze as either version of Maniac, but it delivers an alternative viewpoint by centering its tale on a female killer and examining someone living on the cusp of committing terrible violence at the drop of a hat.

The Stylist will be available for streaming via Arrow on March 1st.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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