The latest film from Peter Strickland, In Fabric, is a dizzying dive into horror-comedy. Visually it hearkens back to the giallo Italian films of the 70s and it’s clear that aesthetics are king for this director. Every ounce of this film is dedicated to style- the bold cinematography, the carefully crafted mis-en-scene, the haunting score- and it takes a higher precedent to in depth storytelling and plot progression.
The conceit of the story is a cursed dress stalking and destroying the lives of three victims. Dentley & Soper’s is running vaguely satanic television ads with a great hypnotic effect. Advertising a seemingly never-ending sale, the middle class public become entranced with the shop and it’s garments. A cheeky look at modern consumerism these customers are practically foaming at the mouth to get inside the pristine storefront every day. The occult-staffed store is populated by salesgirls in black Victorian gowns and hard to place Slavic accents. Speaking in an almost alien-like dialogue the enigmatic Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) zeroes in on the dress’s first victim, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste.) The single mother is regularly chastised at work by boorish bosses (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) and antagonized at home by her son’s girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie.) She’s there looking for a first date outfit. Miss Luckmoore suggests the bright red (and demonic) frock- mysteriously only available in one size and fits Sheila perfectly. After buying it the dress quickly takes hold of her life by breaking her washing machine and causing a gruesome rash to form. Marianne Jean-Baptiste skillfully portrays Sheila’s unwavering resolve, as well as adds a deep pathos in her role as a lovelorn middle aged bank teller. Gwendoline Christie is another bright spot in this arc as the witchy foil to Sheila’s pragmatism. This first half of the film ends shockingly as the dress achieves its purpose and is set free into the world to find its next victims.
Unafraid to take its time this film regularly dwells on mesmerizing visuals, but unfortunately after the Sheila storyline wraps up the film has moments of awkward dawdling while it transitions to the next victim.The story spends so much time endearing us to Sheila, that her moments of terror are more impactful than the next characters’. Nevertheless the story continues on with hopelessly dull Reg Speaks (Leo Bill.) A washing machine repairman is forced into the possessed dress as an act of humiliation for his bachelor party before his upcoming nuptials to his fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires.) Soon similar fates befall these two as the dress haunts their lives. Here is where the British wit and dry humor really shines through. Reg is able to knock people into a mind-numbing state of zen as he describes in detail how to properly fix a washing machine. This bit carries on multiple times, each with equally bizarre but humorous outcomes. The high point of Reg’s storyline is the dream sequence, where he witnesses Babs’s giving birth in horrific detail. Without giving away too much of the ending the film wraps up with a dazzlingly destructive set-piece, where once again the dress successfully does its bidding.
The most captivating moments of this film are the brief glimpses into the after hours of Dentley & Soper’s. Here is where fans of auteurs Dario Argento and Mario Brava will be most satisfied. Riding dumbwaiters down to the store’s basement (or is it Hell?) the shop workers fraternize with grotesquely anatomically correct mannequins, much to the delight of store owner Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer.) These sequences are confusing and strange, but also entertaining and stylishly executed. Strickland should have focused more on these characters, their backstory, and their peculiar behaviors. In the end In Fabric will not please every viewer but it will certainly catch their attention.