Scarlet. Crimson. Currant. Even blood red. These are all acceptable color descriptions of a dress you intend on purchasing. If—God forbid—the catalog instead reads, “Artery Red”… well, I highly recommend you stay the hell away. Take it from any of the main characters in Peter Strickland’s latest homage to 1970s Italian surrealist horror, In Fabric.
The film follows the phantasmal journey of a flowing red frock from the rack to the shoulders of its unassuming victims. One such victim is the recently separated Sheila Woolchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, of whom I am now officially a fan), who spends her time scouring lonely hearts ads, picking up after her angsty son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and his invasive, perpetually horny girlfriend Gwen (Game of Thrones favorite Gwendolyn Christie), and being nitpicked by her bosses Stash and Clive (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) at a dystopian bank. Another is dweeby washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), who can send people into a semi-orgasmic trance by impassively rattling off industrial jargon about pumps and drain hoses. The beautiful dress begins its torment with a nasty rash but quickly progresses to stalking, levitation, and tragic misfortune. The film acts similarly, luring audiences into an ASMR experience of grotesque pleasure before unfurling into a low-fi consumerist nightmare that feels simultaneously terrifying, enchanting, hilarious, and very kinky.
It’s impossible to say when In Fabric takes place. The creamy turtlenecked and midi-skirted fineries feel strictly seventies, but the hypnotically fuzzy synth pulsing through the fictional ‘Dentley and Soper’s’ department store TV ad—and enduring as the film’s sonic heartbeat—is eighties all the way. And, while the omnipresence of analog tech (rotary phones galore) further seals the film somewhere in those two decades, a rather ancient-looking wooden edition of Sorry! and a pneumatic tube rig at Dentley and Soper’s checkout counter abruptly toss us back into the early-to-mid-20th century. Strickland’s world succeeds as a timeless, acid-dipped version of our own reality—one where people are just as materially obsessed, but maybe a bit more upfront about it.
For instance, inhabitants of this heightened existence regularly ask each other how they did at “the sales,” masking bitterness with cordial tones when someone snags a better deal than them. Every day is Black Friday as customers flock Dentley and Soper’s at dawn with their noses pressed against the glass, waiting impatiently as macabre employees enact spellbinding opening rituals and bow to their masters—uh, I mean, clients. The most notable of this Addams Family of store clerks is the inscrutable Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), a sort of Slavic sphinx who tells dubious shoppers like Sheila, “The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.”
I enjoyed the other little ways Strickland fashions this warped reality, which include giving Sheila’s uniform a tag engraved with “I’ll help you” instead of her name, or throwing in phrases like “love voucher” and “pleasure voucher,” to show the extent to which capitalism owns these characters. Details like calling Dentley and Soper’s dressing room the “Transformation Sphere” verge on excessive, but the whole film is such a deliciously kitschy affair that I don’t mind them. I also don’t mind the more extreme satirical business, like the almost Satanic ceremonies performed by Miss Luckmoore and her gothic colleagues, and Luckmoore’s unsettling likeness to the fiberglass store dummies.
The on-the-noseness of it all would feel taxing if not for Strickland’s devilish humor and eye (and nose and taste and ear…) for aesthetics. As a giallo fanatic—his 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio literally centers around the sound designer of a 1970s Italian horror flick—Strickland ensures In Fabric is chock-full of bright colors, old-school practical effects, fetishistic close-ups thanks to cinematographer Ari Wegner, and throbbing music tracks courtesy of the German group Cavern of Anti-Matter. The self-awareness of Strickland’s camp, as well as his effortless ability to dance between horror and comedy, make the film work as an allegory for commercialism. Yes, they keep the social commentary from feeling tired, but they also perfectly compliment Strickland’s materialist theme.
Of course, fashion and sex—and subsequently, consumerism and pleasure—are immediately conflated when Miss Luckmoore tells Sheila that the red dress will make her blind date Adonis “compliment” her. If that’s not enough, Luckmoore sensually runs her perfectly polished red nails through the garment’s silky fabric and coaxes Sheila into doing the same. Plus, there’s some highly pornographic stuff going on with the store mannequins. But, just as the dress brings visual and carnal satisfaction, it dooms its wearer, with Reg’s fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires) even comparing the rash to an STD. Strickland presents fashion as a fetish that brings both pleasure and pain and then says the exact same thing about film as a medium by inviting us into his freakish, Argento-esque brand of scopophilia.
In Fabric’s Lynchian surrealism might not all make sense but, as Strickland points out, neither does anything else we consume, especially fashion. When Sheila responds with confusion to a dress label that reads, “You who wear me will know me,” her boyfriend Zach responds, “You think anyone who wears these things know what they mean?” Pointing out the arbitrariness of one’s art is tricky to do without coming off as lazy or pretentious, but Strickland wears it well.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
Please, instantly submit yourself to the recesses of capitalism and buy a ticket for In Fabric. It’s Phantom Thread meets Suspiria meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—what more could you want? Strickland weaves the sights and sounds of retro Euro-horror into a frightfully stylish texture all his own that will mesmerize you, haunt you, and make you laugh… somehow all at once.