With the virtual edition of Fantastic Fest 2020 still underway, here’s a look at two more films from this year’s programming slate: The Stylist from Jill Gevargizian and The Boy Behind the Door, which was co-written and co-directed by Justin Powell and David Charbonier.
The Stylist: I was a fan of Jill Gevargizian’s short film The Stylist when it was making the rounds a few years back, so to see her finally have the opportunity to expand upon the initial concept from the short for her feature-length film debut, also entitled The Stylist, is pretty damn great, and I was left absolutely floored by the results. When people talk in the future about filmmakers who took the world by storm with their first movie during this era in horror, I guarantee that Gevargizian and The Stylist will undoubtedly be a part of that conversation for years to come.
The Stylist follows socially awkward Claire (Najarra Townsend), who is (as you may have guessed it) a hair stylist working in a salon in Kansas City (Gevargizian’s stomping grounds). Claire’s abilities as a hairdresser are unparalleled, as the way she’s able to work with her client’s hair all while being a confidante and supportive ear puts all who sit in her chair perfectly at ease. What nobody realizes is that the unassuming Claire is also hiding some very dark secrets and violent tendencies away from the world, which involves her collecting the scalps and accompanying locks of her victims. And as she gets just a little too close to one of her customers (Brea Grant), Claire finds herself starting to spiral out of control, unable to keep up her genteel façade for very much longer, which means no one in her path is safe from Claire’s dangerous proclivities.
Considering the film revolves around the idea of image and how our hair can often become an observable representation for our personalities, The Stylist is a gorgeously visual feast where everything you’re seeing on the screen seems to be working in tandem with every other element: costumes, lighting, production design, etc. That kind of consistency is rare, and I love how The Stylist also often gives off this feeling of an intoxicating warmth that mimics the elegance of Claire’s world, which acts as a visual juxtaposition to the macabre misdeeds that she carries out throughout the movie.
Because we spend about 95 percent of the film fixated on her character, The Stylist lives or dies by Townsend’s performance, and I think the work that she does here is amongst some of the best acting I’ve seen in a genre film this year. The way Claire’s social detachment from the world at large is portrayed with such a delicate nuance by Townsend at certain moments, and how quickly she’s able to push herself over to the dark side without missing a beat is absolutely incredible to watch. There’s no doubt that Claire is the villain of The Stylist, but I think Townsend gives the character these wonderfully heartbreaking strokes of humanity that make it very easy to relate to her pain and apprehension all the same.
There are definitely some comparable thematic elements shared between The Stylist and William Lustig’s Maniac, but I think Gevargizian, as well her co-writers Eric Stolze and Eric Havens, put in the effort to make this story feel like something all its own, resulting in a bold and stunning examination of how loneliness and anxiety can push all of us over the edge.
I also really loved this one sequence where Claire breaks into someone’s home that felt like an homage to Carrie (right down to the color of clothing, which matched the color of Carrie White’s prom dress), and The Stylist also offers up one of the most wickedly audacious finales we’ve seen in modern genre cinema, where my proverbial jaw was on the floor once the credits rolled. Without a doubt, Gevargizian and everyone involved have created something special with The Stylist, and I hope we get to see Jill take on more features in the near future.
Movie Score: 4.5/5
The Boy Behind the Door: A lean and mean thriller that doesn’t have a single ounce of fat on its cinematic bones, The Boy Behind the Door is a harrowing tale of two young boys who are kidnapped, and their fight for survival against insurmountable odds under the most harrowing of circumstances.
The Boy Behind the Door’s story is pretty straightforward: at the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), who are hanging out together as they make their way to their baseball game. They spend time daydreaming about California and tossing around the ol’ baseball underneath the warmth of the summer’s sun, but out of nowhere, the pair of friends are abducted, taken away to a remote house, and held captive against their will. Kevin is the first taken into the secluded locale, which provides Bobby with the chance to run to safety. But after hearing his pal’s screams of terror, Bobby decides to stick around and get Kevin out of harm’s way, and soon it’s up to these small heroes to not only survive, but put an end to their kidnapper’s reign of terror.
The reason The Boy Behind the Door works as well as it does is its simplicity—that’s not to say the story from co-writers and co-directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve or that it plays it safe, because it most definitely does not. It’s just more of a case where the film sets out to achieve a goal, and the efficiency with how it achieves that narrative goal is incredibly impressive. Because The Boy Behind the Door is very much an exercise in endurance, for both its viewers and for its lead characters, filmmakers Powell and Charbonier establish the movie’s pace very early on, and as the tension of the situation continues to ramp up, they never once let up on the throttle.
Both Chavis and Dewey are phenomenal in Boy Behind the Door, and the deeply rooted friendship that their characters share provides this gut-punch cinematic experience with some much-needed heart. The directors smartly allow us some time to settle in with these kids at the start of the movie, and for as great as the rest of the film is, the scenes with Bobby and Kevin before everything goes south are my favorite parts of The Boy Behind the Door. One of the film’s villains is played by Kristin Bauer van Straten (Pam from True Blood), and my god, is she terrifying here. Her character doesn’t sugarcoat the situation for these boys, either; they’ve been taken to fulfill a very specific and depraved purpose, and the way she nonchalantly lays out the situation for them at one point chilled me to my core.
We’ve had a lot of great thrillers come out over the last few years, but I think it’s the real-life horrors of The Boy Behind the Door that left me rattled in ways I couldn’t have possibly expected. It feels akin to a feature-length version of the Baseball Boy scene in Doctor Sleep, and beyond it being a taut and unnerving viewing experience, it also tackles some deeply important issues in a way I haven’t really seen before. I really applaud the efforts of Charbonier and Powell, as well as the entire cast, for what they were able to create with this film.
Movie Score: 4/5
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