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In Cornell Woolrich’s 1937 novella I’m Dangerous Tonight, a dress fashioned from the devil’s cloak drives its owners to commit terrible deeds. Filmed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper in 1990, Woolrich’s story established a familiar pattern that can be found lurking in the shadowy seams of many a supernatural thriller.
The latest film to be cut from such fiendishly seductive cloth is In Fabric, a deliciously tactile romp from Peter Strickland, British writer-director of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy. A heady mix of intoxicating nostalgia, clothing-related alchemy and horror-inflected twisted comedy, it’s an impressively uncategorisable affair, seemingly inspired by Strickland’s traumatic/ecstatic memories of being dragged to department stores as a child. Part consumerist satire (think a livelier version of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) part magical fairytale (Phantom Thread with added phantoms), it’s a film designed to provoke the tingling sensations of an “autonomous sensory meridian response” (Google it) that will leave you laughing, squirming, and scratching your head, often all at the same time.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar-nominated in 1997 for Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies) is Sheila Woolchapel, a single mum whose former partner has apparently found new love. Saddled with stroppy teenage son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and his vampy girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), Sheila scans the lonely-hearts ads in search of more rewarding companionship. During the January sales at the Thames Valley Dentley & Soper department store, she is cajoled into buying a blood-red dress (the catalogue says “artery”) by the imperious Miss Luckmoore, thrillingly played by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed.
Despite unanswered questions about the garment’s apparently fluid size, Sheila is reassured that prospective gentleman callers will be bewitched. But the dress has devilish designs of its own, bringing Sheila out in an alarming rash and threatening to tear her formerly staid home life apart. It’s a similar story when it falls into the hands of washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), who is forced to wear the same dress on his stag night, prior to his marriage to long-term girlfriend Babs (the versatile Hayley Squires). All appear to fall under its spell, aided by the incantatory rituals of the Dentley & Soper staff, who convene like a mysterious coven to perform strange after-hours ceremonies.
There’s more than a hint of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in Strickland’s gothic portrayal of an arcane institution run by sinisterly whispering enchantresses. Mohamed is particularly arresting, her bouffant wig recalling Gary Oldman’s most outrageous vampire incarnation in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s an unsettling echo, too, of the Autons from the 1970 Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space, as death-mask mannequins are brought to bloody life. It’s a particularly British brand of eeriness that has its roots in the writings of Nigel Kneale; no wonder Strickland’s extracurricular activities include a reimagining of Kneale’s The Stone Tape for BBC radio.
At times, In Fabric plays like a satirical visual essay on Sigmund Freud’s theories of fetishism, with flashbacks to a formative glimpse of stocking informing a recurrent tableau, as posed by the dismembered limbs that adorn the department store’s display windows. There’s a shivering absurdity to the ritualised retail patter that accompanies the assistants’ sales pitches, riding a fine seam between humour and horror (in another incarnation, In Fabric could have been a creepy 70s sitcom entitled Are You Being Spooked?). Deadpan descriptions of the inner workings of washing machines, recited like holy scripture, send listeners into a semi-orgasmic reverie, while Julian Barratt and Steve Oram retain admirably straight faces as human resource bank operatives Stash and Clive who really want to talk about dreams.
Underneath it all is the kind of throbbingly textural soundtrack we have come to expect from this most aural of film-makers. Having worked with the band Broadcast on Berberian Sound Studio and pop duo Cat’s Eyes on The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland here calls upon the sonic wonders of Tim Gane, whose squishy Cavern of Anti-Matter sounds conjure a perfect musical blend of sensuality and suspense. I heard echoes of John Barry’s theme from the 70s TV serial The Persuaders in the high-street spasm cue, while Mannequin Metric, with its waltzing bass line, is laden with poignant melancholy and laced with intoxicating threat.
As with so many of the films of executive-producer Ben Wheatley, Strickland’s work seems to exist in that strange space between the social-realist tragicomedy of Mike Leigh and the exotic kaleidoscopic imaginings of Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell. It’s a mesmerising place to be, at once familiar yet otherworldly. Try it on for size.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: In Fabric review – rides a fine seam between humour and horror | Horror films