Open up your closet and look at the clothes there. If you’re like me, you’ll find a wardrobe mostly consisting of horror tees and ripped jeans, but I’m assuming you’re not a bum like me, so regardless of whatever is in there, those clothes define you. They make you who you are. But how much do you know about their histories? Where have they been, who have they been on, and what’s that weird stain…these are the questions that set up the strange premise for In Fabric…
…Written/directed by Peter Strickland, In Fabric is a surprisingly eerie tale surrounding a high-fashion boutique that feels trapped in another time and place. There, an enchanting red dress is sold to Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an aging mother desperate to just to be noticed and appreciated again, and looking to get back into dating. But this dress, like all clothes, has a history, one that comes with a curse which seeks to destroy anyone who comes in contact with it.
Now, when I say “killer dress”, you probably think of 100 other genre titles like Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, or maybe the recent Killer Sofa. But In Fabric is not that. Where those are entertaining romps with a cheap prostitute in the back alley behind a 7-11, In Fabric is the strangely sexual embrace of an ex-lover that knows how to delight you but still kind of scares you because of that time they stabbed you with a fork.
What I’m getting at is, that on its silky-smooth surface, the concept is one that could’ve easily turned out to be just another run of the mill, cheap but fun, dumb horror movie, yet in Strickland’s more than capable hands, In Fabric is ironed out into an artfully crafted, hypnotic wonder that works its way over the viewer’s skin until it becomes a part of it.
Told in two complimentary parts, the first half of the story deals with Sheila, a divorced woman leading a dull life who is desperate for someone, anyone, to notice her. Enter the dress. Sheila encounters the bright red garment—playfully deemed “arterial red”—at a retro boutique called Dentley and Soper’s department store, and despite the fact that the dress is not her size, it fits perfectly, thus entrapping Sheila, though she doesn’t know it yet.
The space which much of In Fabric takes place, Dentley and Soper’s, is one of the more fascinating elements of the film. In an interview I did with Mr. Strickland, he described the quiet eeriness of department stores from his childhood, these places seeking to be regarded as more than they were, full of people looking for the same, and Strickland, along with cinematographer Ari Wegner, translates that to the screen beautifully. Dentley and Soper’s comes across as a place that is timeless, trapped in a forgotten decade and refusing to leave. The crisp turning of catalogue pages and quiet murmurs of customers give the place an otherworldly perception, highlighted by euphemistic language used by the geisha meets Victorian ghost shopkeepers, in particular, Miss Luckmoore (played by Strickland regular, Fatma Mohamed). Between the way Luckmoore speaks about the clothes, and labels such as “transformation sphere” for the dressing room, Dentley and Soper’s presents itself as this oasis at the center of a midlife crisis, but as Sheila learns, it’s really more of a prison.
Once Sheila takes the dress home, the unexplainable begins to happen. The dress scrapes at her closet door. It floats around the house, occasionally attempting to choke others in goofy fashion with its silky sleeves. And it even implodes Sheila’s washing machine during one of the more frightening moments of the film. All of it implying that Sheila cannot escape the dress, no matter how hard she tries.
Once Sheila’s story ends, we move onto broken down washing machine repairman, Reg (Leo Bill), and his inheritance of the dress, which he shares with his bored wife, Babs (Hayley Squires). What was fresh and interesting in the first half of the film, becomes much more mundane and repetitive in this second half. The reason being that Reg experiences much of the same plot points as Sheila. Problems at work. Dealing with a set of humorous superiors (a pair whom Sheila also contends with) that will remind some of the consultants in Office Space as they discuss how to properly shake someone’s hand and wasted minutes in the bathroom on company time. This all works to demonstrate the similarly repetitive nature of our lives, an effective theme, but the film is asking a lot for viewers to sit through a less engaging version of the previous story.
In this sense, In Fabric is like a purgatorial nightmare. These are characters trapped in their jobs. In their relationships. In their clothes. You could say, they become like mannequins themselves, an idea which Strickland admits he wanted to explore. And In Fabric does so in ways that are highly sexualized and even a bit controversial. On one hand, there’s Miss Luckmoore and the other girls at the boutique, all of whom are secretly bald, and are like showy mannequins themselves, promising customers more. Meanwhile, we’re shown mannequins which are a little more than anatomically correct in one of the more bizarre scenes of the year, involving some aggressive ejaculation and sights which the human eye simply cannot unsee.
In Fabric is nothing like the film you might imagine when you hear “killer dress”. Strickland’s greatest trick with this provocative piece of arthouse horror is understanding the goofiness of the concept and exaggerating that without losing the very serious themes at its core, and the power of its strange horror. The second half underwhelms, and the ending poses more frustrating questions than it answers, but plain and simple, you’ve never seen a ghost story like this.
Watching In Fabric is like stepping into an actual, high-class boutique. The prices are incomprehensible at first glance, and the people are scary, but the clothes are so enchanting, that once you leave, you’ll find yourself thinking about that outfit that you could’ve bought for days. In Fabric will haunt you in the same way, urging you to come back to it again and again and see if this time, it fits just a bit better.
Dress up with In Fabric when it releases in theaters December 6th and on demand December 10th from A24.
By Matt Konopka