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IMDB description: “In Fabric is a haunting ghost story set against the backdrop of a busy winter sales period in a department store and follows the life of a cursed dress as it passes from person to person, with devastating consequences.”
Pretty high. I have to say I’m a huge fan of Peter Strickland, who made the haunting Romanian revenge story Katalin Varga (2009).
He then, surprisingly, turned out two beautifully crafted, highly enjoyable films heavily influenced by Italian Giallo cinema of the 70s in psychological horror Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and surreal lesbian romance The Duke of Burgundy (2014).
Impressed by all of his output so far, I was excited to see his latest mini-masterpiece, especially given it was a retro-styled horror movie about a killer dress.
The trailer for In Fabric promised a lush, intense, and, as is Strickland’s habit, somewhat obtuse and weird experience, and I was excited.
Why I Took It Off the List
I was actually surprised I hadn’t already. I think I missed it at the Sitges Film Festival a couple of years ago, and I don’t even know if it got a cinema release in this country. I was in the mood to finally check it out, so took it off my list.
Also, I’m a bit of a fan of bizarre films where inanimate objects come to murderous life if that could be classed as a valid category (well, there is Rubber (2010), which I loved). So I was totally in.
Spoilers? Mild spoilers, but like God’s Own Country, there is not much to spoil about the actual plot of In Fabric: it’s all there in the IMDB description. What matters is how it goes down, and the mood it conjures up.
Review of In Fabric
I’m not sure I would entirely agree with the IMDB description’s label for In Fabric as a haunting ghost story: it is partly that, but it’s equally as much a psychedelic horror, (hyper-stylized) kitchen-sink drama, and, most surprisingly, witty comedy.
Expanding on the absurdist misunderstandings of diametrically opposed characters he showcased between a buttoned-up Brit and laid-back Italians in Barberian Sound Studio, Strickland infuses In Fabric with dry humor.
Much of that comes from the complete bewilderment most of the characters face when talking to each other: no one is able to communicate well with anyone else in this film.
The character on the left in the picture above, an insanely creepy saleswoman, talks in a series of intense, and strongly-accented, riddles and metaphors, to which the rather direct main character Shelia can only nod in exasperation.
Sheila’s own son can barely grunt out two words to her, and she is supremely unlucky in the suitors she courts in an attempt to get over her recent separation. Plus, her terrifyingly chipper bosses seem to have it in for her over the tiniest missteps.
While that might sound tragic, it actually comes across as somewhat hilarious, especially in the scenes with the bosses, played by Julian Barret and Steve Oram, and the aforementioned scenes with the exasperatingly vague saleswoman.
Instead of communicating with each other, the characters largely fall under the spell of hypnotic commercials on their retro TV sets, beckoning them to come and shop.
And when I say beckoning, I mean that almost literally, as all of the staff at department store Dentley and Soper’s are deeply unsettling, with their strange posturing and dress, bizarre speeches, and after-hours activities (see the film to discover how strange for yourself).
God Bless Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Some of Strickland’s previous films, especially The Duke of Burgundy, have maintained an aloof vibe that makes it hard to connect with the characters, especially because most of them seem to act in heightened and strangely affected ways.
Although some of the characters in In Fabric are definitely arch and unknowable (especially the department store staff, more on them later), what gives it its biggest appeal is that many of the characters are surprisingly down-to-earth and sympathetic.
Chief among these is Marianne Jean Baptiste’s Shelia. The sublime actress gives probably her best performance since Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996), expertly sketching out Shelia as a lonely yet determined no-nonsense sort baffled by the strange phenomenon brought into her life by the cursed dress.
In both her scenes with the obnoxious girlfriend of her son (a fun supporting performance from Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie) and her interactions with the riddle-filled shop assistant, it’s worth watching In Fabric just for her amazing facial expressions and perfectly pitched exasperation alone.
Hayley Squires is also highly entertaining as another frustrated victim of the dress, and the whole film is almost stolen by the aforementioned creepy shop assistant, Miss Luckmore, whenever she’s on-screen.
As the enigmatic Luckmore, Fatma Mohamed gives off an intensely alien, yet weirdly refined vibe that suggests a shop mannequin come to life. Her stilted interplay with her baffled customers, as well as the scenes of her sinister downtime activities, are a joy to watch.
So, So Stylish and Beautifully Crafted
What sets In Fabric apart from a typical horror flick about a killer object is the insanely lush retro production values, cinematography, and inventive editing style that Strickland uses to bring his tale to life.
The film is packed with striking imagery, from the disturbingly hypotonic TV ads for Dentley and Soper’s to the spectacular implosion of a washing machine to the high-carnage hysteria that closes out the film.
And, while far from a traditional story, it also feels like Strickland has managed to successfully carry a narrative through In Fabric in a way that didn’t really happen in Berberian Sound Studio or Duke of Burgundy, which both went a bit off the rails during the third act.
Something quite impressive for a story about a killer dress with multiple ‘victims’ as the protagonists, but I thought that the slyly subversive satire about our capitalist society that Strickland weaves through In Fabric is both satisfying and entertaining to the end.
Final Score: 8/10
Worth Checking Out?
Yes. Although In Fabric is definitely not for everybody, I thought it was a brilliantly made, entertaining, and surprisingly funny horror film with enjoyable performances.
In Fabric (2018)
Written and Directed by Peter Strickland
Check out my next review for the verdict on another recent horror film in the run-up to Halloween!