In Fabric
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Image courtesy of TIFF.

In Fabric is a horror movie about a haunted dress, and it’s great

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Sep 19, 2018, 4:00 PM EDT

Director Peter Strickland has made a film about a cursed red dress that murders people. Whether or not you will like the film is based entirely on that premise. If that brief synopsis excites you then you will almost certainly find something to adore about this phantasmagorical tale. If it makes you roll your eyes then this is definitely not the film for you. There’s really no way to be ambivalent on In Fabric. You will either love or hate it.

Strickland is a director defined by the filmmaking past. Berberian Sound Studio, a story about a sound engineer working on an Italian giallo movie who slowly loses his connection to reality, is as much about how films are made as their impact on us. His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, took on the much-maligned erotic drama genre and imbued it with retro finesse. Now, he's back to delving into the stylings of old-school horror for the kind of story that, by all rights, shouldn’t work. How do you make a pretty red dress scary?

In Fabric is a semi-anthology story that follows two owners of the prerequisite dress: Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a lonely bank worker who just wants to look nice for a date; and Reg (Leo Bill), a put-upon washing machine repairman who is forced into the dress for a bachelor party prank. This story divide is connected by the mysterious department store of Dentley and Soper’s, where the dress is sold by the strangest group of retail staff ever encountered. Breaking the film down to its basic story components is somewhat futile and beside the point with In Fabric. As with much of Strickland’s other work, the real pleasure is in the visual and aural sensations of the piece. This is our world but somehow not. The 1970s aesthetic blends with the style of Hammer Horror, Dario Argento and 19th-century gothic romance. Everything about this world is weird but nobody ever questions it.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the dizzying world of Dentley and Soper’s, the oddly hypnotic television adverts of which entice potential shoppers with the prospect of a post-Christmas sale. The store itself is familiar enough in its ‘70s layout and numerous mannequins but the staff is all dressed like Victorian mourners and speak in overtly florid terms about the pleasures of consumerism. Customers don’t use the changing rooms; they enter the "sphere of transformation." The staff tries to entice Sheila into buying something with sales tactics that sound like they were written by stoned vampires — “A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.” Later, after the store closes, the staff lovingly wash one of the mannequins then sexually pleasure it until it bleeds. At the end of the day, the manageress removes her wig and curls into an animalistic ball in the dumbwaiter, lowered into the recesses of the store until the morning.

Are these women witches? Are they running a satanic commune under the guise of a shop? Are the mannequins real people embalmed in resin like House of Wax? In Fabric isn’t all that interested in answering such questions, for that would be too conventional and way less interesting than the questions themselves. The story is a canny and unique take on consumerist culture that also understands that sometimes we just need the right outfit to get on with our day. Often, we force sensations onto our clothing, like claiming that one dress is lucky or that bad things always happen when you wear those shoes. Sheila is lonely after her split from her husband, who has already moved on, and all she wants is the right dress, the right man and some peace in her life. When a date goes badly and weird things start happening in her life, it doesn’t take long for Sheila to blame the dress, which she just discovered was worn by a catalog model who died tragically.

Whether said garment is truly evil or Sheila is projecting her fears onto her new dress isn’t exactly up for debate — the dress is clearly evil — but the ambiguity still speaks volumes for how we put so much of ourselves in the stuff we own. Frankly, if a demonic coven were looking for easy victims, they could do a hell of a lot worse than a department store January sale.

The second half of the film isn’t as strong as the first, and you yearn for the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste to return to the screen. Instead, we get the story the story of Reg, his mundane life and the charity shop purchase that’s beginning to cause haywire (never before has a malfunctioning washing machine seemed so terrifying). Reg doesn’t seem capable of an emotional experience beyond apathy while his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) is comforted by being able to fit into such a small dress. The film’s bone-dry humor is still present in these scenes, as well as the unnerving phantasmagoria of it all, but Reg proves to be less interesting to watch than Sheila. Indeed, the anthology feels like it’s missing a segment, although it would be equally as enthralling to watch a whole television season of the dress being passed from one unwitting owner to another. There’s an entire sitcom to be made from the two bank managers (played by Steve Oram and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt) whose bureaucratic nit-picking makes Kafka seem reasonable.

If this movie is the movie for you — and by now, you most certainly know how you feel about it — then the faults of In Fabric will be inconsequential. The pacing lags in many spots, the structure is unwieldy and the ending abrupt. Of course, Peter Strickland is more concerned with how the film makes you feel rather than what it makes you think about. This is a film of the senses and the sensual, with enough satirical bite to give it more beyond mere style. You'll either love it or hate it but that's something you'll have decided long before you see it.

In Fabric premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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