Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: In Fabric

Thanks to the Tallgrass Film Festival, I had the chance to take in Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, an instant cult classic which hit UK theaters earlier this year and will play commercially in the US by the end of the year. The phrase “not for everyone” certainly comes to mind. In conversation afterward I encountered many who simply did not dig what the movie had to offer. However, if the thought of Tom Ford and David Lynch co-directing Suspiria and somehow adding a dimension of British passive aggressive humor appeals to you, then make a point of seeing In Fabric as soon as you can.

In Fabric – which I would broadly categorize as a horror/thriller/black comedy – was equally inspired by Peter Strickland’s own experiences in retail, nostalgia for a pre-shopping chain era when little stores existed and displayed a character all their own, and his current obsession with ASMR videos on YouTube. Also, the dude just finds mannequins endlessly fascinating. Thus, we have a film which plays quite a bit like what would happen if the witches from Suspiria ran the department store from Are You Being Served? and turned mannequins into flesh during the off hours. Plus, they sell haunted items. In Fabric is a movie about the journey of one of those haunted garments.

Casting their spell Welcoming the customers

The plot: It might be 1993, but it sure looks like the 70s. A haunted red dress is passed from one doomed soul to the next. Dare to return it to the department store and you just might end up wrestled to the ground and berated by the irate manager who refuses to allow you to quit your adventures in high fashion and retail. Or, perhaps worse, you’ll have Miss Luckmore to contend with. Good luck keeping up with her since she more talks around you than at you. “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?”

So, the dress passes from poor Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to Reg Speaks (Leo Bill). She’s a newly divorced bank teller who doesn’t much like her ungrateful son (Jaygann Ayeh) and absolutely does not like his obnoxious French girlfriend (an unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie); he’s a timid washing machine repairman trapped in a relationship which has lost all its spark. The dress finds its way to each of them and slowly works at them until something horrible happens.

As per usual with Strickland’s work, it all turns quite surreal. Department store mannequins mysteriously show up in the woods. Reg gains the power to mesmerize others – almost orgasmically so – through the sheer monotone sound of his voice as he dispassionately describes things like “condenser fan” and “fill valve.” Customers – happily cued up for the store’s much-advertised January sales – just ignore or perhaps don’t even notice how strange the employees are.

You’re never quite sure what is actually happening, and you’ll most likely walk away with more questions than answers.

Others have called this a modern giallo. Strickland – an idiosyncratic director coming off the three-film run of Katalin Varga (2009), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and The Duke of Burgundy (2014) – would certainly know a lot about that. He set Berberian in the behind the scenes world of 70s giallo filmmaking, drawing inspiration from 1968’s Death Laid an Egg, a less-remembered giallo. He’s even carried over Fatma Mohamed, one of Berberian’s various scream queens, and given her In Fabric’s scene-stealing part of Miss Luckmore.

Indeed, In Fabric does have the look and sound – Cavern of Anti-Matter supplies an especially haunting, rock-infused musical score – of a modern giallo – cribbing from the the mind-bending, supernatural branch of the Italian horror genre, not the black gloves, proto-slasher branch. However, Strickland claims a different influence.

Talking to SciFiNow Magazine, he explained:

“I wanted to do Ghost Stories set in January sales…I got those very late as they came out on DVD recently because of the MR James’ Christmas BBC adaptations. I loved the atmosphere of them and I wanted to do something similar but I didn’t want to copy them. I just tried to take the sensibility of those films but lose the misty beach and haunted house and find the most prosaic setting possible and see if I could do something similar with the January sales.”

That’s partially why In Fabric is so confounding to some viewers. There is an almost entirely unexplained horror movie happening in the margins with Miss Luckmore and her crew, and in that particular area Strickland bombards the viewer with jarring sounds, enchanting visuals, and more than a couple WTF moments. The bulk of the film, however, is a slow-burn character study of Sheila first and then Reg. Luckmore still gets all the best lines, but Sheila and Reg carry the emotional weight.

In that department, In Fabric is far more successful with Sheila. She buys the dress for what turns into a rather disastrous lonely hearts date, and it sticks around in her life after that, slowly exerting more of a supernatural influence even as she loses all need of it. Through her sad personal life and workaday existence at the bank, we see her desperation for more. The retail promise of “a better you if you just buy this one dress” understandably casts a spell on her. It’s tragic, darkly funny, visually intoxicating, and quite scary, sometimes all at once.

Peter Strickland wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fun With Post-Credits

Includes a credit for “Mannequin Pubic Hair.” It’ll make sense once you see it.

Where to Watch

As of this writing, In Fabric won’t hit American theaters until December 6th.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Can…hmmm. Better stop at 4 times.

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