Glamorous. Daring. Sexy. A new dress can feel like a promise to yourself that you’ll become the woman fit to wear it. But in writer/director Peter Strickland’s twisted horror-comedy In Fabric, a dress becomes something sinister. With a knee length skirt with flowing long sleeves, the “Ambassadorial Function Dress” offers elegance with a streak of sex appeal. But danger lurks in the details. A “dagger neckline” and its “artery red” color warn that this dress is a slasher. Seriously, like Michael Myers, Chucky, or Jason Voorhees, the Ambassadorial Function Dress will stalk, torment, and kill any who dare wear it. And while this garment may be battered and brutalized, it will rise again, renewed and ready for more carnage.
Strickland has wowed critics with the eerie aural horror Berberian Sound Studio and the sadomasochistic romance The Duke of Burgundy. Now, he offers a strange tale that tangles around a cursed dress. In Fabric begins with lonely single-mum Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whose life is rife with frustration. At work, her every move is critiqued by two nattering bosses. At home, her grown son treats her like his maid, while his sneering model girlfriend (a wickedly wry Gwendoline Christie) treats her like a joke. Recently divorced, she’s reluctantly dipping her toes back into the dating pool and hopes her success might be improved with a new dress. But there’s something deeply strange about the Dentley & Soper boutique, where Sheila tries doom on for size.
Its TV ads offer an unsettling but hypnotic montage of mannequins and merchandise. Its employee uniforms are an unusual cross between Victorian mourning gowns and can-can costumes, all in matte black. Cryptic clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) speaks in a peculiar poetry that suggests working retail is a dark art. (“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.”) And things get even stranger once the customers have gone home. That’s when Luckmoore is either tucking herself into a mysterious dumbwaiter or fondling a merkin-sporting mannequin until its vagina oozes menstrual blood.
A clip from In Fabric, with Fatma Mohamed and Marianne Jean-Baptiste
But for all the peeks behind the boutique’s curtains, In Fabric will not offer answers about the why of its slasher dress. Instead, we are encouraged to just embrace the madness. And why not? Strickland laces in crackling comedy with moments where the dress attacks like something out of a B-movie, sliding under doors like the Blob or swooping down from a ceiling like the Babadook! But those anticipating a rollicking ride will be sorely disappointed. For more than a curious and macabre comedy, In Fabric is homage to giallo films, luxuriating in a pacing that feels antiquated by today’s quick-cut genre standards.
To his credit, the film’s colors are fantastic. Alluding to the vicious hues of giallo, In Fabric’s reds are so violent they nearly bleed. A frank sensuality is displayed through close-ups of blood-red lacquered fingernails stroking fabric, the moaning mouth of an orgasmic woman, and the stark spray of semen from an unashamed voyeur. Shiela’s styling and the film stock aesthetic has a sixties vibe ’60s, while the boutique’s embellishments — like the shop girls’ uniforms — feel older, wilder, and fittingly festered. Underscoring this nostalgic mystique, Strickland offers Cavern Of Anti-Matter’s eerie yet enchanting score, where a harpsichord lets out tempting tinklings and low-brooding warnings. Add to this the sound design that swells with throbbing whispering of women, and In Fabric feels like its swallowing you whole with its sounds and sensations.
These bold images and uncanny audio envelopment are so intoxicating that they entreat audience patience with a plot that goes from meandering to crudely bisected. More than halfway through the film, Sheila’s story comes to an abrupt end. Then the dress and narrative is haphazardly handed over to a hapless handyman (Leo Bill) and his domineering girlfriend (Hayley Squires). In the first section, Strickland toys with time and audience’s patience. For instance, crossfades and a droning score accentuate the comically long time it takes for a minor bit of shop business, like giving change to a customer. But by the second story, my patience was tried. I’d grown attached to Sheila, and grew restless with Reg.
Overall, In Fabric is a moody and darkly amusing film that borrows from an array of horror influences to create something familiar yet refreshingly unexpected. However, Strickland’s spooky and sensual indulgences aren’t enough to sustain the film’s freaky sense of fun through a woefully clunky final act.
In Fabric made its New York Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. A24 is expected to release the film in theaters this summer.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com