IN FABRIC is a unique little movie – a horror film that’s not exactly serious, but not adverse to making its absurd premise work; a comedy too, but dry as freshly folded laundry. It’s primarily an exercise in style, a period piece exalting the golden era of Italian horror with its slender beauties and very good retro score – more proggy than the synthy stuff everybody is doing now – by somebody called “Cavern of Anti-Matter.” It fetishizes retail fashion, taking place in and around the women’s department at a ritzy London department store, frequently featuring montages of (and a nightmare about) catalog models, having its characters repeatedly make small talk about “the sales,” and whether each other found anything good to buy. And of course mannequins. Lots of mannequins the look like people and people that look like mannequins.
And it’s about a killer dress.
I don’t know if it’s a haunted dress or a cursed dress or what, but it’s trouble. It’s red, with a black shape embroidered on one side. It’s size 36, but seems to fit anybody. It has a mysterious inscription sewn into the hem like Reynolds Woodcock would’ve done. When divorcee Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, MR. JEALOUSY, TAKERS, ROBOCOP) takes a risk and buys it for a “lonely hearts” date, it looks nice on her, but does not turn out to be a great investment. It gives her a bizarre rash. It causes the washing machine to “go bananas,” fall apart and tear up her arm. In its goofiest, but maybe also coolest moments it can crawl or float, land on people, smother them. It gets damaged and mysteriously repairs itself. It’s like Christine.
There’s plenty of space between dress attacks for loneliness and funny, awkward interactions. Poor Sheila works a shitty job behind a window at a bank, with some OFFICE-SPACE-esque passive aggressive bosses named Stash (Julian Barratt, The Mighty Boosh) and Clive (Steve Oram, SIGHTSEERS) who act like they’re doing her a favor when they give her illustrated literature about how to improve her handshake. She has a comically horrible date. She seems to kind of like living with her adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh, “Sailor 3,” LES MISERABLES) except he’s getting more lovin than her and his girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie STAR WARS VII and VIII) is rude and intimidating.
It’s also kind of a two-part anthology with this other lead character Reg (Leo Bill, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) who reminded me of the lead in Sam Raimi’s CRIMEWAVE. There are some clever ways the characters are connected besides the dress – for example, Stash and Clive talk to Sheila with inexplicable excitement about a washing machine repair service they once hired, and Reg works for that service, as we realize when he comes into their bank to get a loan and they bring it up again.
The way you know writer/director Peter Strickland (KATALIN VARGA, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, DUKE OF BURGUNDY) is at least a little more than some nostalgia or parody artist is how much he gets into the witchy SUSPIRIA shit going on behind closed doors at the Dentley and Soper’s department store. The big-haired clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, all of Strickland’s other movies) and her staff seem to be some sort of coven operating out of that place. She gives off a very something’s-not-right vibe hard selling the dress, even before she admits that the model who wore it in the catalog died. But don’t worry, she explains – she showered thoroughly before putting it on.
I won’t give away all the weird shit they do – there’s some good laughs and creepiness in there – but let’s just say they have a ritual where they caress an anatomically correct mannequin while a weird old man (Richard Bremmer, THE 13TH WARRIOR, the first Voldemort, HALF PAST DEAD) spies on them and jerks off. Which you don’t get in SHAUN OF THE DEAD or most of the other horror comedies.
I like the scene where a crowd is gathered outside the glass doors before opening time – Black Friday style, DAWN OF THE DEAD style, whatever – and Miss Luckmoore, Mr. Lundy, plus their associates who are apparently named Miss Kolliston (Deborah Griffin), Miss Lullworth (Susanna Cappellaro, DARK SHADOWS) and Miss Brimblecombes (Catherine Backhouse), pose in front of the door. I think it’s some type of witchcraft but the customers must take as, like, showmanship or something. It’s a good example of how the movie can be funny but a little unsettling at the same time.
Oh yeah, this is released by A24, and it is an arty genre movie, but not at all in the way of the ones most people associate with that company. It would be weird to say it was too grim or humorless. I did think maybe it was too long at 118 minutes, but not too bad. It has a nice build to it, repeating certain motifs (like I think there are three different characters who tell a story about a dream they had) and getting increasingly surreal until bedlam breaks out. Riots and fire and madness. Good stuff.
I learned from an interview that it’s set in 1993, which shocked me – I thought it was supposed to be much earlier. I guess the music tricked me. But the obsessive attention to whatever-period-it-is detail is definitely part of the fun. Strickland has an eye for clothes, hair, faces, furniture, wallpaper. You gotta like looking at old answering machines, TV graphics, print ads. There are little stylistic flourishes that you could say are tongue in cheek because they’re done with full knowledge that they’re out of style and will be received as goofy, but you could also say they’re not tongue in cheek, because clearly he also thought they were cool. I haven’t seen the other Strickland movies, but it’s clear from this one that he’s one of those directors with a passion an a gift for crafting a meticulous look and feel and world.
And that’s enough, but I feel compelled to admit that if there’s something going on underneath the style, I’m not sure what it is. To me the movie seems a little like the dress – beautiful and well made, with nothing inside.
But that’s not fair, is it? Because look at that dress – the fuckin thing is movin around, killing people’s pets, causing carbon monoxide poisoning, getting shit done. Does it need somebody inside it? Apparently not. Anyway, I hope it gets to host an anthology horror series like The Cryptkeeper.
February 26th, 2020 at 9:21 am
Strickland is one of my favorite contemporary directors, though I’ve only seen this and “The Duke of Burgundy”. He’s definitely a style-over-substance guy, with a bone-deep love of giallo. “In Fabric” feels a bit like a journeyman movie from him, but one fully invested with his weird passions. And it does feel a bit thin, conceptually, but overall I liked it. I say “overall” because I didn’t much like some of the weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird comedic bits, like the scenes where Leo Bill droning in about appliance repair seems to bring listeners to orgasm.