“Isn’t it a little risqué?”
“A provocation. For what else must one wear?”
Characters throughout director Peter Strickland’s new film, In Fabric, refer to the various “sleeping dreams” that they recently experienced. The dreams are Freudian wonderlands—one character dreams about the stink of their mother’s corpse causing a bus to drive off a cliff, while another dreams that she is in the store catalog on every page, continually growing skinnier even though the size of the garment she’s wearing is increasing. Implied in categorizing an event as a sleeping dream is the existence of a “waking dream;” the film unfolds in a similarly dreamlike and provocative manner—a sort of “waking dream” in its own right.
The film primarily revolves around Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the new owner of a haunted dress. The haunting has presumably already taken the life of the catalog model who had previously worn it (the sales clerk is kind enough to reassure Sheila that the model showered before wearing it, so the customers have nothing to worry about!). After the dress slowly destroys Sheila’s life (or, depending on your interpretation, while it continues to destroy her life), it comes into the possession of a loveless couple named Reg and Babs (Leo Bill and Hayley Squires) when Reg’s friends buy the dress to make him wear it to haze him during his bachelor party.
Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), the sales clerk that initially sells the dress to Sheila, absolutely steals the show. Luckmoore’s memorably baroque vocabulary and peculiar speaking cadence confound other characters as she continuously talks circles around them. She and the other clerks are members of a weird cabal, seemingly led by the gruesome Mr. Lundy, devoted to forwarding the dress to new victims. Miss Luckmoore and Mr. Lundy could be seamlessly dropped into a David Lynch film—compare their pale complexion, otherworldly inflection, and menacing dialogue to the Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway. There are many other apparent nods to Lynch, ranging from the use of red curtains to mimicking Lynch’s style of imagery and sound design in particularly surreal moments (the description of the film on the Toronto International Film Festival page includes yet another comparison to Lost Highway: a bifurcated plot). While I am a big fan of Lynch and surrealism in general, the most overtly surreal scene in the film, featuring Mr. Lundy voyeuristically watching a few clerks wipe down a mannequin, didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I would feel different if it was directed by someone whose filmic vocabulary I was more familiar with, but the scene in question was uncomfortable and felt out of place with the rest of the film.
Another influence felt in the film is that of the Italian horror subgenre giallo. The Italian word for yellow (taken from the color of their dimestore pulp novels), giallo was an influential subgenre from the 1960s and 70s prioritizing mood, style, violence, and psychosexuality over plot and characterization. In Fabric, much like giallo films, is not particularly interested in answering questions and tying up loose ends. Images of the dress hovering menacingly over its future victims, or of a maintenance room with way too many mannequins than anyone could reasonably feel comfortable around, would feel right at home in a giallo. The icing on the pastiche cake is the score. Much like the score to famed giallo director Dario Argento’s film Suspiria (1977) by the band Goblin, Cavern of Anti-Matter’s score to In Fabric is synth-heavy with a simple, haunting melody, evoking that earlier subgenre while setting a suspenseful mood over the film.
While clearly an entertaining film, I could never quite shake that it felt like an episode from the early series of the sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. It’s hard to say why (although it may be as superficial as being produced by BBC Films—early seasons of Black Mirror were similarly produced by a British television production company, Channel 4). This is not entirely meant to be a criticism, as I am a big fan of those early seasons. While the film has some satire, it isn’t quite as overt and pointed as the best of Black Mirror. There is certainly a critique of consumerism present in the final moments of the film that thread can be extended to the rest of the film, even if tenuously so. I think that it would be valid to read the dress as a stand-in for consumerism—Sheila purchases it to increase her self-esteem pending date following a separation from her husband; in reality, she is feeding into the systems that are oppressing/killing her.
The film probably isn’t for everyone, especially people who don’t enjoy surrealism or unresolved plotlines. But In Fabric displays capable acting, fantastic cinematography, evocative music, and an entertaining story, and is well worth a look. It wears its provocations boldly, rarely falling flat and keeping the audience in suspense until the end.