By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
It is my humble belief that anyone who works in customer service should be given the right to free and frequent murder. For those bartenders, servers, cashiers, and hairdressers, murder should come with no consequences. Working with the public has taught me that my fellow man should not be trusted with any authority and that they will abuse on-site anyone bearing the logo of the establishment. Humorist Fran Lebowitz says, “This is why they call it human nature and not human kindness.” Sweeney Todd taught us that no one is safe who goes for a shave, and while perhaps that wasn’t entirely the lesson of Stephen Sondheim’s show, it did impart upon me a simple lesson: If I go to the barber, I might get my throat slashed. When ordering a pint and a shot at my local bar, I would not be wrong in believing that the bartenders could murder me if they were having a particularly vexing Monday. Don’t like it? That’s okay. The solution is simple. If I don’t want to risk being murdered by customer service people, then I can stay home. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
This week, I’m dishing on Mrs. Sweeney Todd: 2020’s horror realism mindfuck, THE STYLIST. Starring Najarra Townsend (Contracted), Brea Grant (2009’s Halloween II), and Sarah McGuire (Happy Birthday). Jill Gevargizian co-wrote, produced, and directed the film, itself an adaptation of a short film she made. It’s currently streaming on Shudder which is my excuse to take a moment to say: isn’t Shudder great? They really deliver. Shudder could have been CNN+. Shudder could have been terrible, but it turned out to be awesome. I love that.
Okay, let’s get to the movie. Claire (Townsend) is a lonely hairstylist who prefers to work nights so that she has the privacy to murder her clients. Love the initiative. She offers her client a glass of drugged wine, which from a murdering perspective shows a level of consideration we don’t get from our rogues’ gallery of horror baddies. Carrie didn’t spike the punch before killing her classmates. Amber didn’t slip Dewey some valium. Said client passes out, which gives Claire the peace and quiet to use her shears to do some scalping! Once she disposes of the body, Claire goes home to her cute puppy and takes the scalp down to her cellar where she houses all her other … trophies. She mimics the client she just killed as she sits in front of the vanity. It’s very reminiscent of Return to Oz, and I couldn’t be happier.
The next day Claire is in line for coffee at her local cafe. She notices a drop of blood on her boot. Damn. The barista chides Claire for being so out of it. Does murder give people hangovers? Or is it like, when you murder people in your 20s, you can wake up the next day with no problem, but in your 30s, you need a week’s bed rest if you dare to have a murder with brunch.
Meanwhile, Olivia (Grant) is getting married in a few weeks and needs Claire to do her hair. “The stuff she does with hair is jaw-dropping,” says Olivia. Olivia isn’t wrong about that. And despite this moment of cheekiness, the film doesn’t stray too far into black comedy. Olivia visits Claire for an appointment. Claire says, “You look amazing … amazing. Perfect.” Her desire is palpable, slightly relatable, and undeniably creepy. She makes hair styling look like a sensual, nearly sexual act. After their appointment, Olivia invites Claire to hang out. Claire is awkward; The insane loner personified. She hovers between Oliver from The O.C. and Jill Roberts in Scream 4.
Claire visits her cafe just as her regular barista, Dawn (McGuire), is closing up. Dawn lets Claire in and even buys her a drink. When Dawn turns her back to Claire, Claire roofies her coffee, then politely waits outside for Dawn to come out with bags of trash and collapse. Claire drags Dawn back inside and lays her out on those slip-resistant black mats all restaurants and cafes and bars have. It gave me bartending PTSD right away because those things are always pretty gross, and now poor Dawn is napping on it. I guess Dawn has bigger problems, as Claire takes out her shears to begin the scalp, scalp, pull. Unfortunately, Claire is looking off into the distance and slips, cutting Dawn down the face. It is at this unfortunate moment that Dawn wakes up. Poor Dawn. If someone chose to murder me after a double shift, I would mostly be upset they didn’t kill me at the start of my day. Claire stabs Dawn to death with her cute li’l shears. Her almond chai wasn’t that bad, Claire!
Olivia invites Claire to her bachelorette party. As you can imagine, Claire is never the life of the party. She hides in a bathroom stall as two of Claire’s bridesmaids talk shit about her. They don’t understand why she’s there and are sure to note just how creepy she is, then they call each other bitches in a giggly moment that solidifies this great homage to the bathroom scene in Scream. As in Scream. “Scream Scream” – 1996’s Scream. Claire follows one of the bridesmaids home and almost kills her, but then, at the last second, chickens out. I loved this sequence because it shows just how hard it is for a serial killer to off all their victims. No one stops to appreciate Mikey and Jay Jay’s stamina and dedication. At least the Scream movies acknowledge that it would probably take two people to legitimately make a slasher happen IRL.
A few days later, Claire surprises Olivia in her office parking lot. At night. Super romantic. THE STYLIST hints at Fatal Attraction and Single White Female, but it still manages to carve out its own identity. “Maybe we can get together tonight,” Claire begs Olivia. Olivia needs space, she says, and then Claire suggests she doesn’t actually want to get married. “Don’t be like this on Saturday,” says Olivia before driving off. Claire wears desire like other people wear clothes. Claire decides to break into Olivia’s house during the rehearsal dinner. She wears her lingerie and even jerks off with Olivia’s vibrator. I loved how texturally uncomfortable this scene was. It was wicked. It was irreverent. It was 100% believable. And of course, Olivia arrives home so Claire can’t even finish before she sneaks out the window.
When she gets home, Claire returns to her scalp cellar. She talks to herself in the vanity. “I guess we all want what we don’t have,” says Claire. YES. YES. YES. Because that is what obsession always boils down to. She then starts to destroy her lair the same way Selina Kyle wrecks her apartment in Batman Returns. And despite all the references I’ve made so far, I must be clear that Townsend’s performance is her own. She is a powerful actor, and I love watching her every moment she’s on-screen. And like, hey, if she wanted to scalp me, I’d be kinda flattered.
The day of the wedding arrives, and Claire shows up to do everyone’s hair. Like anyone else at a wedding, the first thing Claire does is find the groom to determine his honest intentions with the bride. “Do you promise to make her happy? Do you promise to always see her?” Claire badgers the groom. Scenes like this are more cringe-worthy than when she is putting on people’s scalps. Luckily, people don’t really notice Claire. She tends to Olivia and fusses over her veil. Olivia apologizes for snapping at her. “The pressure’s been building for quite a while,” says Olivia. You can say that again!
One question I struggle with in this film: Does Olivia know Claire is into her? And does she kind of like it? I can’t tell. Claire breaks down in front of Olivia, and we think they’re having a nice moment of honesty. Alas, Olivia makes her way down the aisle, and as her hubby lifts her veil, we learn that it is Claire wearing Olivia’s scalp. The guests look on horrified, then run out to search for the rest of Olivia. It’s not unlike the last moments of Cruel Intentions. We stay in the church with Claire as she looks around smiling. Finally, Claire is happy.
Final Thoughts: I loved this film. It’s almost not horror because it never feels like a scary movie. Our villain is almost too human. Claire is a woman struggling with mental illness. She needs help. She never enjoys her murders. They are always a compulsion. There are no musical numbers in which she does lots of hair murders. She won no prizes for her great work. And while I would have probably enjoyed a version of this film that leaned into the black comedy, I appreciate that Jill Gevargizian kept us in a little buoy of sanity so that we couldn’t enjoy the madness circling in the waters. The horror is always rooted in real emotions, and for those of us who fear intimacy as much as spiders, that is perhaps the most frightening part of all.