Fantastic Fest 2020 Review – ‘The Stylist’ Makes a Triumphant Transition to Feature

Since her breakout debut in 2014 with her stellar short film Call Girl (check it out here), Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian has consistently left the horror masses enamored. She directed a hefty 15 short films in under five years since, each one stellar in its own right. But it was her masterful 2016 coup de gras The Stylist that left every jaw, including my own, dropped. The tale of a lonely hairstylist named Claire, The Stylist was a near-flawless 15-minute exercise in short film perfection. It is hands down my favorite horror short film ever, so I was dizzy with excitement when the news broke in 2019 that Jill was turning it into a full-length feature. Her first foray into features, The Stylist (2020) had its hotly anticipated world premiere on Saturday, September 26th as part of Fantastic Fest’s digital lineup. And if the short film blew you away, hold onto your hairpieces.

Picking up where the short film left off, The Stylist re-introduces the world to our hairdresser Claire (Najarra Townsend – Contracted 2013). Very much a socially awkward introvert, Claire desperately longs for human connection, a desire that goes eternally unquenched. The frustration of her job – she’s allowed to peer into her client’s lives as they open up their darkest secrets in the salon chair, but never getting that truly deep connection with someone she yearns for. Always kept at arm’s length. As her first client Sarah (Jennifer Seward), an out of town wife and mother cheating on her husband, so aptly puts it, “We all want what we don’t have.” Never fully comfortable in her own skin, Claire has found a most unusual way of slipping into her clientele’s skin instead, a method befitting a hairstylist. But it becomes quickly apparent that claiming her grisly souvenirs from her victims just isn’t cutting it anymore either.

Claire has a most unusual, and sadistic, way of getting into her client’s heads

Enter Olivia (Brea Grant – RZ’s Halloween II), one of her regulars, having a last-minute wedding hair crisis. When the originally booked wedding hairdresser bails, the panicked bride-to-be is hoping Claire will fill in as the replacement. Claire is initially reluctant, but seeing an opportunity for the friendship she craves, she ultimately agrees. It starts innocently enough, but before you can say Single White Female, things spiral wildly out of control as Claire becomes increasingly obsessed with Olivia, building to a shocking wedding day climax you’ll never forget.

The Stylist absolutely blew me away. I had incredibly high expectations after the magnificent short film, and this full-length feature exceeded every expectation with flying colors. The visuals are absolutely breathtaking. The film manages to have a dark, sleazy feel to it, while still painting with a vivid, warm color palette. I definitely pick up some strong Brian De Palma Carrie (1976) influence, both in visual style and a similarly sympathetic villain. Also some subtle Italian Giallo influence in the bold coloring. The musical score by Nicholas Elert is dazzling, suitably moody, and makes for the perfect accompaniment to the action onscreen. If you’ve seen the short, you know Claire’s preferred method of killing, scalping her victims in a way that would make Maniac‘s Frank Zito grin from ear to ear. But all the kills are very well done and are more than adequately gruesome. Jill has successfully created an unforgettable new slasher villain that borrows heavily from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and both Maniac films (William Lustig’s in 1980 and Franck Khalfoun’s in 2012), but in a more elegant, yet no less horrifying way.

Love and obsession can make people do terrible things in The Stylist
Love and obsession can make people do some terrible things in The Stylist

At its core, The Stylist is a study on the damaging effects of self-isolation and repressed desires. Claire is continually at war with herself, her insecurities and anxieties, always desiring to be someone else. Even when she starts to build a friendship with Olivia, she can’t help but sabotage things, fighting the urges to both want to be her, and be with her. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film where I could feel my own anxiety building so intensely as I watched it, it’s so effective at emotionally sucking you in. Claire manages to be that rare villain you can find yourself sympathizing with. Perhaps even more devastating, she’s an incredibly relatable character, someone we can all see glimpses of ourselves in. Huge kudos to the writing team of Jill, Eric Havens, and Eric Stolze for building a character with so much depth, so many layers, and Najarra Townsend brings Claire and all her complexities to life with chilling perfection.

In stark contrast, we have Olivia. Olivia throws a wrench into the works for Claire, because she’s the first of her victims that she wants a genuine connection with. She has everything Claire wants – a successful, confident business woman with friends and a loving soon-to-be husband. The seemingly perfect life, the kind of life Claire would quite literally kill to have. But she also has a very real attraction to Olivia, which causes her to want to repress those homicidal urges. It’s only when it becomes obvious that Olivia and her fiancée are just stringing Claire along because they need her for the wedding that Claire finally goes off the deep end.

Claire and Olivia doing some pre-wedding bonding in The Stylist
Claire and Olivia doing some pre-wedding bonding in The Stylist

The Stylist is definitely a slow-burn, so don’t go into this expecting an action-packed bloodbath. I think the pacing is perfect, allowing the time to really develop these characters, but I could see how some people might think it drags a little. The other only possible flaw might be the somewhat predictable ending, but honestly, I think it works tremendously. The ending of the short was so effective because you didn’t see it coming. You kept thinking “They’re not really gonna go there… oh shit, yes they are.” Here, even though you could get a clear idea of where the end was headed, we’re forced to helplessly watch it unfold. We’re powerless to prevent it, and even expected, it still sends shivers down your spine.

The Stylist was unquestionably one of my biggest anticipations of 2020, and it exceeded my hopes and expectations in every way. You would never guess watching that this was Jill’s first feature film, it’s such a confident, self-assured, and beautifully executed piece of cinema. The Stylist delivers a haunting, emotionally charged psycho-thriller easily among the best I’ve seen ever, this year, or any other. I’ve watched the short more times than I can count, and I can totally see myself watching and re-watching the feature with similar fervor. The reaction from Fantastic Fest, and the Kickstarter backers who helped make the film happen, has been unanimously positive, nothing but love so far. I can’t wait to see what Jill Gevargizian does next from here, hopefully, this film gets her the wide-spread notice and attention she so richly deserves. As it stands, The Stylist is one of the must-see horror films of 2020, so schedule your appointment today! Just don’t ask her to take a little off the top.

About Matthew Solomon

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