“The Stylist” takes the tremendous promise of an extremely effective horror short and more than delivers with a virtually flawless feature film adaptation.
One of the most anticipated films premiering at this year’s virtual Fantastic Fest is The Stylist, writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s feature-length adaptation of her critically acclaimed 2016 short film of the same name.
While the original short offered viewers only a tantalizing glimpse of Gevargizian’s unassuming killer, Claire, we are now treated to a fully immersive portrait of this troubled woman and the world she has built for herself — and the world she’s trying to escape — as it crumbles around her.
Claire is a hairstylist. To those who sit in her chair, pass her on the street, or work alongside her, she appears perfectly normal; a bit awkward and odd perhaps, but not someone you’d expect to be a threat. Indeed, Claire’s clients place a great deal of trust in her. There’s an unspoken rule of stylist-client confidentiality that allows women to let their guard down in the stylist’s chair, often divulging personal secrets they’ve never told another soul while Claire’s hands work their magic.
But sometimes Claire takes this invitation into her client’s life a step too far.
Sometimes she takes their life, along with a gruesome souvenir that allows her to pretend that her unlucky client’s life is her life, at least for a little while.
The closest thing Claire has to a friend is Olivia (Brea Grant), one of her regular clients. Olivia has everything Claire doesn’t: a loving fiancée; a large close-knit family; a supportive group of friends; and a confident, outgoing personality. She has what many would consider the perfect life.
When Olivia asks Claire to style her hair for her wedding, Claire becomes increasingly obsessed with her and her seemingly perfect life. What follows is a devastating struggle between Claire’s personal demons and her genuine affection for Olivia, as she begins to lose control of her carefully orchestrated double life.
The heart of The Stylist is Najarra Townsend’s devastating performance as Claire.
In the original short film, Townsend conveyed so much within such a small structure, and given the depth of a feature, she absolutely soars. She infuses Claire with a quiet intensity that masks the storm raging just beneath the surface. She brings to life the desperate loneliness that drives Claire’s desire to be someone else — anyone but herself — to the point of deadly obsession.
But while she brings vulnerability to the role, Townsend never lets us forget that this woman is dangerous. We get a glimpse into the origins of Claire’s broken psyche, but Townsend and Gevargizian make no attempts to redeem her. Claire is born from the tradition of characters like Carrie and May: we know her actions are not justifiable, but she acts on emotions that are painfully familiar to us. We see ourselves and our deepest insecurities in her. We understand her.
Watching Claire’s once methodical extracurriculars becomes increasingly reckless as she gets closer (but never close enough) to Olivia is stressful — in a good way.
Gevargizian builds a masterful tension that spikes in the last quarter, preparing us for a jaw-dropping climax. By the time we realize what’s about to happen, we’re too swept up in the nightmare to do anything but watch in horror as it unfolds.
Adapting a feature film from a short is undoubtedly a challenging task, one that Gevargizian handles brilliantly.
The Stylist feels like a natural expansion of its predecessor, filling out Claire’s story with rich detail and style while avoiding filler.
There isn’t a moment of the film that doesn’t feel intentional, whether that intention is to give us insight to a character or, like Claire with her clients, lull us into a sense of comfort before striking.
With stellar performances and intimate storytelling from the beginning to end, The Stylist lives up to — and surpasses — the hype.