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The Stylist gives the slasher genre an overdue makeover

The Stylist
The Stylist, poster

To no one’s surprise, the slasher genre has largely been dominated by male killers, most of them with deeply seated mommy issues. Norman Bates, Jason, Leatherface (as revealed in the 2006 prequel), all take their childhood traumas and dump them on unsuspecting women that must die because they remind them of their own mothers. One woman’s failure becomes a blight on the entirety of womanhood.

Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist isn’t unaware of this trend among slashers. It actually acknowledges it for its story’s benefit, finding in it an opportunity for subversion, for turning the table on the formula without completely disposing of it.

The Stylist presents audiences with a female killer called Claire (played by Najarra Townsend), a hair stylist that kills unsuspecting customers and removes their scalps to preserve their hair. The reasons why she does this is where the formula gets refreshingly tampered with. Claire isn’t obsessed with hair. She’s obsessed with the image people want to project with their new hair styles.

The movie takes advantage of Claire’s macabre methods to offer commentary on acute social anxiety and how the weight we put on physical appearances forces certain inflexible expectations upon people. One of Claire’s victims, for instance, makes a comment on how we always want what we can’t have as we settle into our lives, mostly by making decisions that box us into society’s idea of what we should be. This is basically the movie’s motto. We always want what we can’t have.

The Stylist

The movie develops this idea by focusing on a particular character that reaches out to Claire for her wedding hair, a thing that stresses the bride to be to the point of considering it the thing that’ll brings the whole experience together, as if the event’s success hinges on curls and extensions.

The concept of marriage, being one of the experiences people struggle with the most in terms of when to do it or even if it should be done in the first place, acts as the catalyst that puts Claire on crisis mode. It puts her face to face with a human tradition that requires having certain things she unfortunately doesn’t have: meaningful friendships.

The situation lends itself well to the metaphors at play. It helps them surface more noticeably as given how it’s commonly assumed that the person that has to shoulder the burden of making sure the wedding ends up being a resounding success is the bride, who also has the responsibility to dazzle in her dress and keep up appearances.

Claire takes all this in and struggles with her place in it, fortifying her frustrations with fitting in as a woman within that environment. In this regard, parts of the original slasher formula start seeping in. Women are still the killer’s main source of anguish, but the killings aren’t borne out of misogyny. They come from a profound frustration, and perhaps incompatibility, with the roles they’re expected to fulfill. That’s what makes the story feel so subversive as a slasher.

The Stylist

Najarra Townsend’s performance as the serial killer stylist is a definite highlight and one of the best in a year filled with strong horror performances (Robert Patric’s in What Josiah Saw comes to mind as one of the others). Claire is a very awkward character that always looks as if she’s uncomfortable in her own skin—hence her desire to become other women while wearing their scalps—and Townsend captures that in every single scene.

The film’s lighting is another high point. It has an eye-popping color palette that could’ve fooled anyone into thinking the story was going to borrow heavily from Giallo slasher movies. While there’s certainly a wink or two here and there that’ll surely leave fans of the genre satisfied, the overall tone of the story and its focus on deep character development owes more to films like Maniac (1980) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), in which the intention is to paint a picture of the killer in as many shades as possible.

The Stylist is an unsettling film that relishes in its ability to make audiences uncomfortable. It’s confrontational even, shoving viewers into a place where they’re forced to ask themselves if Claire’s experiences wouldn’t be enough to drive anyone to do the things she does to try and fit in. It’s stylish, smart, and quite simply unforgettable, the same things one would expect from a killer haircut.

Almost American