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Arrow Video FrightFest reviews: The Stylist, Slaxx, Lucky and The Nights Before Christmas

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The final day of the second digital edition of Arrow Video FrightFest 2020 featured the UK premieres of The Stylist, Slaxx and Lucky and the world premiere of The Nights Before Christmas.

Check out our FrightFest coverage

THE STYLIST

Directed by Jill Gevargizian (One Last Meal) and written by Gevargizian with Eric Havens (Dark Web) and Eric Stolze (Night of the Wolf), The Stylist stars Najarra Townsend (Contracted) and Brea Grant (After Midnight).

Claire (Townsend) is an anxious and lonely hairstylist in a Kansas City salon. But what her clients don’t realise is that it is their lives, as well as their hair, that they are putting in Claire’s hands when they sit in her chair. Doing a do after hours we see that Claire likes to drug her late-staying clients and, after giving them the hair of their dreams, kills them and scalps them for it. Taking the stolen barnet home to her serial killer basement she then wears it and pretends to be her departed appointment giving herself a moment in the (flayed) skin of someone she wishes she could be more like.

Tragically, we see that people do like Claire and want to be her friend, but she is now so insulated against the world and unhappy with herself that she no longer notices – blanking a coffee shop lady clearly looking to connect with her. Finally, someone gets through when Olivia (Grant) wants Claire to do her hair for her imminent wedding.

Sharing pasts, sipping wine and eating pizza the pair begin to become friends and Claire decides to lock her basement, and that part of herself, up and try to be normal. But, unskilled and inexperienced socially she soon accidentally alienates Claire with her clingy, creepy and obsessive behaviour. Without her murderous outlet and now rejected too Claire spirals – stalking Olivia and losing grip on her sanity and remaining shard of self.

That, even after an absolutely excruciating opening scalping sequence, we still empathise with Claire is credit to Najarra Townsend for a fantastic, careful and considered, touching not terrifying, performance that makes us want to hug and reassure her character after making mistakes, i.e. killing people, and her trial run in the short The Stylist fleshes out is clearly an invaluable foundation Townsend and Gervargizian to build on.

Her direction is so good that it is easy to forget that this is her first full-length feature. Always making the interesting choices and providing a pace and presentation that is simple to follow but always thrilling, for example: a highly intelligent use of split-screen that DePalma would appreciate shows Gervargizian has plenty of panache but knows to back it up with earned emotional substance. Her impressive direction of actors is obvious too. Performances such as Townsend’s touching one and Grant’s everywoman who could easily have seemed mean to Claire but feels natural and understandable are the result of trusting actors and giving their work time and space to breathe.

The film looks incredible, thanks to cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern’s warm and clean compositions and excellent costume design that shows real thought has gone into every outfit worn in the film, with the clothing clearly telling a story and reflecting its wearer’s psyche perfectly.

The Stylist could easily have simply played as a high-concept slasher, a gender-bent Maniac, but Gervagizian’s film is full of warmth, heart and soul and Townsend’s Claire is so sympathetic that when the time film reaches it’s shocking and inevitable conclusion, it is as sad as it is shocking. A stunning-looking and heart-breaking character study of Najarra Townsend’s spiralling sensitive serial scalping snipper, The Stylist has excellent effects, assured direction and an absolutely breathtaking ending.

 

SLAXX

Slaxx stars Romane Denis (Slut in a Good Way), Brett Donahue (Radius) and Sehar Bhojani (The Handmaid’s Tale), is directed by Elza Kephart (Go in the Wilderness) and is written by Kephart and Patricia Gomez (Graveyard Alive).

New hire Libby (Denis) starts a job at a fast-fashion clothes store that is an amalgamation of Gap, H&M, Abacrombie & Fitch etc. on the night of the big launch of a new kind of jeans – made from experimental genetically modified cotton – that adapt to the wearers body size and shape.

As the staff stock and prep the store, the jeans are revealed to be alive and begin to pick off the shop workers one by one: strangling them, squeezing the life out of them and munching them down with their zipper “mouths”. All the jeans effects are really, really good and footage shown during the credits reveals it is because they were done with puppeteered pants not CGI. The kills are all obviously a lot of fun and very painful looking, but the best thing about Slaxx is discovering that it is not just a throwaway killer jeans movie.

Libby is forced to try and survive the night alongside the embodiment of awful middle management Craig (Donahue) and the jaded seasoned clerk Shruti (Bhojani) and we soon discover that the jeans are sort of possessed by a child labour laws violating little Indian girl who fell into the cotton thresher and now wants bloody revenge on the company whose exploitation of her led to her demise.

Slaxx has plenty of smart pops at fast fashion brands, corporate BS, brand zombies and vloggers AND some demented denim even eats a man’s hands! With its unique combo of brains and blood, Slaxx is an unashamedly political piece with great gore too to show it’s not all mouth and no trousers.

 

LUCKY

Directed by Natasha Kermani (Imitation Girl) and written by Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift), Lucky stars Grant and Hunter C. Smith (The Big Day). Grant is May, a writer who is having difficulty shifting her latest book, who one night sees a man (Smith) in her garden. She wakes her husband to tell him only to be told to grab a weapon because it is probably just “the man who tries to kill us every night”.

After a brutal fight, May kills the man and tries to get to the bottom of her partner’s odd reaction only for him to leave. When the police and a crisis counsellor arrive they are equally dismissive and the following night the same thing happens: the man breaks in and attacks May who must fight for her life. Then it happens the next night. And the next night.

Frustrated with the strange, suspiciously blasé way everyone around her is reacting to these repeated life-threatening assaults, simply telling her “You’re so lucky”, May becomes rapidly frustrated. But as the man continues to try and kill her May she slowly begins to realise what is happening and what it means.

With highly pleasingly strange and singular writing and attitude, Lucky feels like absolutely nothing else. It is weird in a way that you will love with a topical and powerful explanatory payoff. Kermani’s skilled direction works two-fold throughout, on the one hand keeping us grounded and curious, but also never quite letting us relax and feeling always off-balance and worried.

Brea Grant – who is so hot right now with this, her own excellent film 12 Hour Shift, graphic novel Mary and appearances in The Stylist and After Midnight – is fast becoming one of the most interesting performers and creators in genre cinema. Her absolute likeability is key here, helping us along a wrong-footing narrative footpath that a weaker actor may not be able to lead us down, and her script is a fascinating and discombobulating slasher mystery that just gets better and more important the more it unravels.

 

THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS

The Nights Before Christmas is directed by Paul Tanter (Jack Falls)) and written by Tanter with Simon Phillips (Age of the Living Dead) who also stars alongside Sayla de Goede (Lucky Day), Samantha De Benedet (Butchers), Keegan Chambers (The Final Ride) and Kate Schroder (Spinning Out).

A psycho Santa Claus (Phillips) and his wannabe Harley Quinn Mrs. Claus (de Goede) are on a murderous path of death and destruction, chasing down Marie (De Benedet) and Courtney (Chambers) while also offing anyone else in their way. FBI Agent Natalie Parker (Schroder) is tracking them and attempting to puzzle out the link between the victims too.

While not listed as such, The Nights Before Christmas is a sequel to a film called Once Upon a Time at Christmas, and having not seen that one I can confidently say that without seeing OUATAC first TNBC does not work as a standalone at all. I only found out it was a sequel when I googled it twenty minutes in extremely confused.

Christmas is a time of joy but there was none to be found here. The dialogue is painful, performances either annoyingly over the top or cold as Rudolph’s hooves, and scenes feel like they go on forever. The puzzle behind the killer’s victim choices doesn’t really matter and the feds procedural element is deathly dull and drawn out.

The Nights Before Christmas feels like a punishment for being on the naughty list, and if that is the case I would rather have just had the lump of coal.

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