In Fabric is director Peter Strickland’s latest giallo-influenced horror with a pastiche, absurd ‘70s feel.
Lady (and Gentleman) in Redby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In Fabric‘s central character is a haunted, malevolent red dress that brings down strange events on the head of its wearers – with some transformative, bizarre quirks along the way.
The first – and longest – wearer is browbeaten, middle-aged bank clerk Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies), comically micro-managed at work, living with her son and his domineering girlfriend (Jaygann Ayeh and Gwendoline Christie) and preparing to return to the singles scene.
She buys the seductive red dress – which magically adjusts itself to fit any wearer – at her local (old-fashioned even for the ‘70s) department store, Dentley & Soper. The vampiric sales lady (Fatma Mohamed) is a weird apparition, declaiming metaphysical riddles as sales patter to convince unconfident Sheila. But Sheila falls in love with the dress, forebodingly described as ‘artery red’ and wears it to two disastrous blind dates before it provokes a washing machine disaster.
The second wearer is a washing-machine mechanic (Leo Bill), a fetishist who wants to wear it for a party. He has a fractious, comedic relationship with his dysmorphic wife (Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake). Unexpected happenings ensue.
Red, naturally, dominates the film’s colour palette just as the red dress does its wearers. It’s vibrant and strong, suggesting blood. And the red dress harks quietly back to Powell and Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes, the enchanted ballet slippers that danced their wearer (Moira Shearer) to death. And who knows if the Chris de Burgh song had anything to do with it. But In Fabric savours its own idiocyncratic inventiveness frustratingly slowly, even having some scenes as stills collages.
If you loved Strickland’s two earlier films Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, you’ll like In Fabric too, but perhaps not so much. Though the giallo influence is not so strong as in these others, it has the same murky feel that anchors it in the vintage Italian horrors that obsess him as a director.
Take the crucial department store, for instance. Small independent department stores existed in the ‘70s but now are fast disappearing, so Sheila’s shopping trip with personal attention is a period piece. It’s interesting too to contrast Dentley & Soper with the upmarket millinery store in Nemes’ recent Sunset. Both are multi-faceted symbols of, perhaps doomed, aspiration.
And the Dentley & Soper salesgirls – like the female dance teachers in Argento’s remake of the giallo Suspiria – turn out to be a secret coven of witches, with, in In Fabric’s case, a rather mind-bogglingly sexual way with the shop-floor mannequins. (The film has a credit for the public-wig maker.)
For Strickland the idea of clothing that has been worn by someone else is haunting. It can bring with it sadness and also possibilities that mean different things to different people. In In Fabric he has put these ideas into the horror genre framework that he returns to throughout his work, implicitly linking consumerism, sexual desire and the randomness of death in intriguing horror fashion.
In Fabric premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 28 June 2019 in the UK and on demand.