The elevator (or in this case, dumb waiter) pitch for In Fabric, writer/director Peter Strickland's fourth feature, ostensibly concerns a cursed dress, which may remind horror buffs of Robert Bloch's short story 'The Weird Tailor', adapted for the screen as an episode of the '60s Boris Karloff hosted show Thriller and an installment of the 1972 Amicus anthology Asylum. Splitting the film into two distinct though interconnected stories, Strickland's movie recalls the output of Amicus, and while he continues to channel the exotic spirit of '70s Euro horror, In Fabric is distinctly British in its self-deprecating humor. A succinct elevator pitch might read 'Dario Argento's Are You Being Served?'
Like another of 2019's best films, László Nemes' Sunset, In Fabric is centered around a department store that appears to be a front for sinister goings on. The store in question, Dentley & Soper's, broadcasts a psychedelic commercial - soundtracked by an electronic jingle that recalls those creepy '70s British safety awareness shorts - that seems to lure customers to the store like rats to the Pied Piper. One such visitor is the recently divorced Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who fancies a new dress for an upcoming blind date. Giving in to the world's most oppressive store clerk, the vampiric Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) - whose unique sales technique involves speaking in florid riddles like a pretentious fortune cookie ("the hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail") - Sheila buys a glamorous red dress that makes her feel like a new woman when she tries it on.
The blind date - with a moody git who insists on using a coupon that will get him a 10% discount ("if we share the pudding") - is a washout, and Sheila returns home to her drab life with an unappreciative teenage son (Jaygann Ayeh) whose older girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie) seems intent on turning Sheila's home into her own boudoir. Things are no better for Sheila at work, where she is forced to endure pedantic, passive aggressive tellings off from her employers (a hilariously deadpan Julian Barrett and Steve Oram as gay lovers) over matters as trivial as the strength of her handshake. As if Sheila's life wasn't miserable enough, her new dress seems to be out to get her, destroying her washing machine when she attempts to clean it, jumping about in her closet and inexplicably returning to one piece after being torn to shreds by a dog driven feral at the site of the garment.
I won't reveal where this storyline leads, but later on the dress finds itself reluctantly worn by Reg (Leo Bill) when he's forced to don it by his boozy mates on his stag night. As with Sheila, Reg and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) fall victim to similarly ominous circumstances.
Throughout both storylines, Strickland treats us to a glimpse behind the scenes at Dentley & Soper's, where Miss Luckmoore removes her wig and rides a dumb waiter down to a lower depth where she, her co-workers and the Angus Scrimm alike store owner (Richard Bremmer) perform odd rituals, including masturbating a female mannequin until it bleeds from its anatomically correct genitalia (a scene that reminded me of that very weird sequence in Paul Bartel's Private Parts involving a blow-up doll). If the witches of Suspiria had transitioned from ballet to high street retail, perhaps this is how it would all play out.
Strickland's last three films have all been infused with the spirit of '70s horror, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric takes place in a sort of alternate reality that isn't quite that decade, but certainly not our own homogenized era. In Fabric is beautifully designed, shot on sets whose artificiality both adds to the sense of unease and the feeling that we're watching a very screwed up sitcom. It's Strickland's most blackly comic film to date, with much of the humor coming from his poking fun at the blandness of middle class life in suburban Britain, where men ruin dates by pulling out coupons and husbands bore their wives into a trance with long-winded explanations of why their washing machine isn't working. Excluding the ghouls of Dentley & Soper's, the characters of In Fabric wouldn't be out of place in one of Mike Leigh's more comic works, and they're contrasted with the seductive yet sinister European glamour of Dentley & Soper's in a manner that feels like a wry commentary on Brexit.
In Fabric is by no means a mainstream movie - it's quite, quite mad, and unlike anything else you'll see in 2019 - but thanks to its cringe-comedy, it may be Strickland's most accessible work to date. Devotees of the sort of horror and cult movies whose aesthetic Strickland has reconstituted here (in a manner that, like Anna Biller's similarly themed The Love Witch, never feels like crude pastiche) will be onboard from the start, and if the bleeding mannequins and levitating gowns aren't a turn off, fans of British humor at its sharpest should also fall for In Fabric's well tailored charms.
In Fabric - 4 1/2 Stars out of 5
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gwendoline Christie, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Caroline Catz, Julian Barratt, Steve Oram, Hayley Squires
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com