Writer-director Jill Gevargizian introduced hairstylist-serial killer Claire (Najarra Townsend) in an effective, unsettling short film – and now follows up with a feature that further explores the strange, unsettling world of the quietly mad, but also desperately sad protagonist. Claire is not one of those chatty coiffeuses, which perhaps attracts clients who like to talk to her – spinning out versions of their lives that become so overpoweringly attractive to the shy girl that she scalps them and wears their hair like a wig-cap as a way of giving herself some sort of distinct personality.
Olivia (Brea Grant), a regular at the salon, cajoles Claire into doing her hair for her upcoming wedding – which Claire, realising how far her obsessiveness might take her, is intially reluctant to do. However, her resistance is overcome and the outgoing, not unsympathetic bride-to-be not only gets Claire to work for her but impulsively drags her into her social orbit – only to cool off when Claire can’t entirely cover her awkwardness or oddness. It’s a rare psycho picture that can evoke Maniac (your prime example of a scalping-themed slasher movie, outside of Scalps) but also the stalker stylings of Single White Female, and female-skewing fluid personality explorations like Persona and Three Women. Whereas many gory serial killer pictures can’t help but relish their horrors, this is a rare shocker that makes us dread the inevitable moments when Claire loses her battle with that compulsion to use her styling scissors in an unorthodox manner.
After the prologue, we don’t need to get that gruesome again – though there’s one supremely uncomfortably moment involving an insufficiently drugged victim who wakes up and recognises her assailant – and there are moments when we see Claire overcoming her urges and pulling back … though it’s an inevitability, what with the stressful countdown to the wedding, that either Claire or Olivia will do the wrong thing and precipitate the logical, inevitable, awful punchline. Townsend, of Contracted and Dementia Part II, was striking and scary in the short, but dives deeper into the character here – we get hints of why Claire is the way she is, but also that she’s often trying out borrowed personality traits and may never be her real self. Grant, recently the director of 12 Hour Shift, is excellent in the secondary role – no more self-absorbed than anyone else in her position would be, but unconsciously cruel in a way that puts us in the uncomfortable skin of the scissor-wielding heroine.
One memorable suspense sequence involves a borrowed night-dress and sex aid. Appropriately, the short film was notable for its style – lighting, costuming, décor and (yes) hairdos – and that carries over here, with a lot of care given to the way surroundings indicate character. It’s the only film I can think of that has a chick flick staple montage – in which the heroine tries on various fabulous outfits (Claire has a great wardrobe) – that also conveys a character’s jigsaw-with-pieces-missing psyche. Sarah McGuire, memorable as one of the girl gang in I Am Lisa, has a small, affecting role as a barista who might conceivably be the understanding friend Claire really needs – but doesn’t see until it’s too late.