Sunday 28 February 2021

THE STYLIST (2020)


Directed by: Jill Gevargizian Starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea

Grant, Sarah McGuire US 2020, 105mins, Certificate TBC.

Available exclusively on the Arrow VOD platform from 1st March 2021.

“But we all want what we don’t have”.

Expanding on her award winning 2016 short, writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature is a stylishly crafted and beautifully executed portrait of a serial killer hairstylist. Claire (Najarra Townsend, CONTRACTED) has a penchant for drugging her clients and scalping them. By candlelight, Claire then sits in her cellar wearing her victims scalps in a macabre costume role-play acting out her clients perceived coveted lives through recalled phrases, flesh and hair.

A cursory glance at the above would suggest comparison with Joe Spinell’s grungy grindhouse scalper ‘Frank Zito’ from William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980). However, shorn of the male gaze, Gevargizian’s primary focus is less the dissection of the female form, (albeit unflinchingly graphic on occasion), but rather more about social isolation. Her protagonist Claire’s crippling low self-esteem hampers her from successfully navigating the intricate cutting mores of social interaction and precludes her from forming any meaningful female friendships.

The opening sequence, re-worked from the short, encapsulates the intimacy and sensuality of the hairstylist’s work and maps out the dichotomy of the stylist/client relationship. A new random customer reveals that she is having a marital affair. A hitherto secret that the client feels she can somehow unburden to a stranger, enlisting Claire as an anonymous confessor. What her client doesn’t realise is that Claire absorbs these snatched intimate details of her clients lives, the only meaningful interactions she has beyond ordering her daily coffee, and weaves them into her fatal fantasies.

When Claire is asked by regular client Olivia (Brea Grant) if she will step in as an emergency replacement hairstylist for Olivia’s upcoming wedding, it sets in motion a chain of events that will give Claire am initial tantalising glimpse of the friendship she dreams of creating before exposing her emotional fragility and unhinged psychology. Inevitably her obsession will eventually lead to nightmarish consequences.

They say write what you know, in which case writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s background as a hairstylist has obviously informed her insight into the nature of the profession (but hopefully not into the mind of a scalping female serial killer). This is an astonishingly assured debut feature, with a nuanced performance from Najarra Townsend at its core, accompanied by lyrical storytelling imbued with vividly rich colour and texture.

Stylishly shot by Robert Patrick Stern, the film looks fantastic, with a vibrant giallo-like palette which belies the modest budget. Split screen sequences highlighting the contrasting lifestyles of Claire and Olivia are pure De Palma, and Nicholas Elert’s lush score, punctuated with discordant notes perfectly encapsulate Claire’s dysfunctional state of mind. Production, costume and of course the hairstyles (naturally) are all meticulously interwoven to illustrate character and setting. Claire’s ornate chandelier and candlelight cellar is a glowing gothic subterranean lair, not unlike that of the operatic Phantom, in contrast to the relative starkness of the salon and Olivia’s apartment.

But the film isn’t merely gorgeous to look at on the surface, it has real bite and Gervargizian pulls off an excruciatingly nasty sequence involving a drugged victim’s untimely regaining of consciousness. Hitchcockian transference of empathy is earned as you cringe for Claire when her Single White Female stalking leads to her having to take refuge behind the shower curtain of an intended victim or almost being caught red-handed (and red-faced) on Olivia’s bed.

Claire’s backstory is only briefly sketched in, an absent father and the death of her mother (also a stylist) at a relatively young age are nearly all the hints we are given. When recalling her mother’s constantly changing hair colour and styles, Claire does however tellingly reveal: “I never knew who was gonna come home”, foreshadowing Claire’s own (twisted) role-plays.

The interplay between Claire and bride-to-be Olivia is teased out with precision playing by Najarra Townsend and Brea Grant (writer/director of the also excellent 12 HOUR SHIFT), and incrementally increases the cringe factor we share with, and for, both characters before the final bleak yet beautiful payoff.

Originally screened at the Arrow Video FrightFest online Halloween event in October 2020, I was glad to book in another appointment to see THE STYLIST, and to reconfirm my opinion that it’s a cut above the rest and destined to be one of the genre highlights of 2021.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Friday 19 February 2021

BREEDER (2020)


Directed by: Jens Dahl. Starring: Sara Hjort Ditlevsen,
Anders Heinrichsen, Signes Egholm Olsen, Morten Holst. Denmark 2019, 107mins, Certificate 18.

“How much can you get away with when you hold the reins?”


Originally premiered as part of the Arrow Video FrightFest Digital Edition 2, Jens Dahl’s disturbingly chilling dissection of biohacking certainly created a stir in genre circles. Inaccurately dismissed by some as a belated Danish entry into the annals of the so-called torture porn sub-genre, the strong reactions to sequences in the film’s final third seemed less about the actual content, but more about their jarring juxtaposition in contrast to the relatively measured restraint and cold sense of foreboding intrigue which precedes.

Olympic equestrian Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), conscious of her body clock and with a specific window before the next Olympics, wants to have a child, but her investment banker husband Thomas (Anders Heinrichsen) has taken to refusing her sexual invitations. One of Thomas’ clients is Dr Isabel Ruben (Signes Egholm Olsen), who is experimenting with a revolutionary new anti-ageing treatment labelled ‘Resurrecta’. After a neighbour’s Russian au-pair narrowly escapes abduction and staggers dishevelled to their door for help, Thomas offers to drive her to the hospital. Mia’s suspicions lead her to track Thomas’ iPhone not to a hospital, but instead to an old sugar factory, and it is here, in the bowels of the facility, where Mia will discover the ghastly secret behind Dr Ruben’s ‘Resurrecta’ and be forced to engage in a brutal struggle with her tormentors for survival.

There is a clinical precision to BREEDER, both visually and scripted. At its cold heart is Signes Egholm Olsen’s white-coated Dr Isabel Ruben, whose unflinching pursuit of the fountain of youth has transformed her into a modern-day Countess Elizabeth B├íthory. “There’s nothing natural about ageing. Ageing is a disease”, she opines to an interviewer. Interestingly, screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaard Thomson admits in the disc’s interview that she did not originally envision Dr Ruben’s mad scientist as being female. However, the change of heart adds additional resonance and poignancy to the script when it tackles gender inequality and the sexual politics of ageing.

The film also takes broad swipes at the injustices in the class divide, and the moral implications of animal husbandry.
Visually, the colour grading is predominately tinged sickly yellow once the narrative arrives at the old factory, reflecting the (very) queasy goings on within, and the notable focus on urination and urolagnia. Branded like cattle, the caged women are tortured and humiliated by Dr Ruben’s viscous caretaker ‘The Dog’ (Morten Holst) and his assistant ‘The Pig’. “You’re a sadistic misogynist, and I’m letting you live out your dreams” admonishes Dr Ruben, who seemingly will turn a blind eye on her video monitor to nearly every act of enforced degradation metered out by ‘The Dog’ but will draw the line at rape (presumably not wanting her ‘cattle’ to be internally compromised). For this however is all merely a prelude to the gynaecological procedures awaiting ‘breeder’ Dr Ruben’s captives, and the horrific DNA extraction method that will follow. 

Although compared in some quarters to the New French Extreme films of the early 2000s, the level of onscreen violence, gore and nastiness, whilst unquestionably repugnant on occasion, never reaches those notorious ‘heights’. Nor can it be said that it delivers such a devastating denouement as Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS (2008). The most affecting moment is a disturbing display of Stockholm syndrome by one of the captives towards ‘The Dog’. Cathartic just deserts for torturers and experimenters are relatively slim-pickings, and the somewhat hurried wrap-up does not fully satisfy or entirely gel given all that has transpired, and the various plot-elements that remain underdeveloped.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde hybrid entry in the medical conspiracy sub-genre, popularised by more mainstream fare such as COMA (1978). However, once Dr Ruben’s secret is revealed, it transforms into a strong survivalist horror nightmare which is a different beast altogether. Be warned.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts
 
This review was originally published by FrightFest.